One of the cool things about being part of the blogging community is being in contact with other bloggers who can point you in the direction of things you might not have discovered on your own. A few weeks ago, Rachel Wagner – who has been organising the Harry Potter podcasts I’ve been taking part in – posted a video review for Love and Friendship, an independent film adaptation of the Jane Austen novella Lady Susan. Rachel was so enthusiastic about the film that I really wanted to see it myself; but annoyingly, despite it being a British period piece, it wasn’t showing anywhere near me. I was left lamenting the state of the film industry, whereby this film – which has a 99% Rotten Tomatoes rating – was being neglected in favour of flashy, uninspired-looking sequels to the latest Alice in Wonderland and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adaptations. But it turned out that I just needed to, in the words of Take That, have a little patience; this week, Love and Friendship appeared at my local cinema after all, and the Saturday evening screening I went to attracted about two dozen people.
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), recently widowed, is in need of a stable dwelling and a stable income, and goes to live with her reluctant in-laws while she works to rectify these problems. Luckily, Lady Susan has many things going for her: she has an eligible teenage daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark); she’s still very fetching and charming herself; and such things as morality and what’s best for anyone else are low down on her list of priorities. With this in mind, she sets out to ensnare husbands for herself and her daughter – her candidates being the naive Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) and the dim-witted James Martin (Tom Bennett) – any way she can.
Jane Austen’s stories can be relied upon to have fleshed-out characters with a wide range of personalities and well-explained reasons for everything they do, and the best one here is undoubtedly Lady Susan herself. A combination of the character’s inherent traits, and Kate Beckinsale’s brilliant portrayal, made me warm to her even though she is really not a very nice person: she’s selfish, cunning, values her own happiness above anything else, and cheerfully manipulates anyone who factors into her schemes. There are two main reasons why she still manages to be likeable. Firstly, Lady Susan is so charismatic, and so smooth at justifying anything she does, that the audience can end up being sucked in like many of the other characters, and agreeing with her themselves. Secondly, she can express a refreshing honesty and frankness, either in private or in the right company. Every now and then, she goes to have a chat with her friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny): these scenes serve both to summarise how the latest scheme is progressing, and allow us to see and hear Lady Susan when we know she’s properly revealing her soul. It’s certainly not a pure soul, but it is an engaging one.
Another highlight of the cast is Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin, who blunders his way through the story with a vapid smile on his face, and sounds wonderfully awkward as he tries to give voice to thoughts he barely understands. One scene where Martin gets confused about the number of commandments is particularly funny. Xavier Samuel portrays Reginald DeCourcy as less outright foolish than Martin, but so honourable and naive that he’s putty in Lady Susan’s hands: his appearance and mannerisms bring to mind Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, only with a less laughable accent.
A good alternate title for Love and Friendship would have been British Wit: The Motion Picture. Much of the film’s comedy – and it is a genuinely funny film – does come from the script (having never read the original story, I can’t say how much of the dialogue is directly adapted); but the actors all handle the material they’re given perfectly, with just the right brisk and witty manner, and comic timing. There are so many one-liners that even the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey would struggle to hold her own in this crowd. Other stylistic choices complement the type of humour, such as the music, and the use of very frank captions when each character appears on-screen (e.g. describing Sir James Martin as ‘a bit of a rattle’.)
Although the film is not particularly long at 93 minutes, the pacing is so fast – and the story immerses you so effectively – that it feels even shorter than that. Often, the editing is as brisk as the characters themselves. You can’t afford to let your attention wander because the dialogue – especially when Lady Susan is involved – goes by so quickly. As for the visual aspect, the Regency style is captured perfectly well: Lady Susan’s wardrobe, with a mix of colourful and imperious dresses, is particularly good.
If you can, you should definitely check out Love and Friendship if you enjoy British period pieces – and if you also want to see an example of refined British humour delivered superbly, and holding up despite the source material being over 200 years old. Rating: 4.5/5.