Movie review: Beckinsale showcases classic Austen wit in sharp, funny 'Love and Friendship'
Posted May 28, 2016
“LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP” — 3½ stars — Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Lochlann O'Mearain; PG (thematic elements); in general release
“Love and Friendship” is about a woman who understands neither love nor friendship. Based on a Jane Austen novella called “Lady Susan,” it features actress Kate Beckinsale in a savage takedown of the 18th-century British aristocracy.
The film opens with a barrage of character introductions and enough contextual information to leave you tempted to take notes. But once things settle in, “Love and Friendship” is a pretty straightforward film to follow.
The plot is built around the machinations of Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale), a widow infamous for her serial flirtations with married and unmarried men and her dubious manipulations of everyone else. She doesn’t have money so much as she manages to attach herself to others of means, thus maintaining enviable and resented status in the community.
Her one true friend is Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), an American transplant in a marriage of convenience to Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry). Alicia has a checkered past of her own and lives in constant fear of being sent back to America.
The story gets rolling as Susan flees the estate of the Manwarings, where she has been staying since the death of her husband. Leaving broken hearts and shaking fists in her wake, she heads for the home of her sister-in-law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), where she takes up a reluctant refuge.
Susan isn’t all that impressed with Catherine’s comparatively modest estate, but she can tolerate mediocre accommodations more than criticism. So when she catches Catherine’s brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel) gossiping about her reputation, she resolves to teach them a lesson. Her plan? Tie poor Reginald up in her feminine wiles and show him who’s in charge.
But things get a little more complicated when Susan’s young daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) gets expelled from her private school and returns to her mother’s side. Frederica is more age-appropriate for Reginald, not to mention a kind human being, and renders her mother into an 18th-century Mrs. Robinson.
Things get even more fun from here as director Whit Stillman skillfully weaves the threads of a story that is more witty than audiences might expect. Best of all is a scene-stealing turn from Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin, a wealthy buffoon with eyes for Frederica who can’t string a complete sentence together without projecting shockwaves of awkwardness. “Love and Friendship” is worth a nod for his presence alone.
But even if Bennett gets the most laughs, this is Beckinsale’s show, and her performance as Susan is a perfect fit for Austen’s caustic British wit. In addition to “The Graduate’s” Mrs. Robinson, her character also seems to echo Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning title character in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” and even Wilfrid Brambell’s hilarious performance as Paul McCartney’s mixer grandfather in 1964’s “A Hard Days Night.”
“Love and Friendship” also packs a strong visual appeal, especially to fans of period pieces. Everything from the regal settings to the never-ending line of ornate costumes reveals the production’s attention to detail. The film lives almost exclusively in a world of luxury, which is compelling when you consider how critical Austen’s story is of their society.
Male audiences may cringe at the thought of getting dragged to another Jane Austen adaptation, but in this case, “Love and Friendship” carries enough character and wit to keep everyone entertained.
“Love and Friendship” is rated PG for some thematic elements; running time: 92 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.