‘Love & Friendship’
Director: Whit Stillman
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel
4 (out of 5) Globes
Has there ever been a bigger no-brainer than Whit Stillman adapting Jane Austen? The filmmaker has been having his characters debate her novels since his 1990 debut, “Metropolitan,” and they share many of the same obsessions: drolly articulate dialogue; lovelorn, overly self-examining young people; hangs with the higher class in which money is still an ever-present issue. But Stillman doesn’t come at Austen the easy way. Not only has he adapted a lesser-known work — the teenage novella “Lady Susan,” unfinished and published posthumously — but one written in an epistolary format (that is, entirely as letters). Stillman has to unpack a tangled narrative on top of fleshing it out, on top of conjuring up his own army of quips that can suitably pass for Austenese.
It’s also not your typical tale of moony proposals and pretty dresses and hunky men emerging wet from lakes. “Lady Susan” — which Stillman renamed after another of Austen’s juvenile works — is sometimes closer to Edith Wharton, following a 30-something widow (Kate Beckinsale) as she navigates through a hornet’s nest of good manners and wealth monsters in the pursuit of a new husband, as well as one for the mousy daughter (Morfydd Clark) she openly deplores. Beckinsale’s Susan isn’t a tragic doormat, though. She’s cunning and acid-tongued, but always careful to conceal her intentions under proper behavior. She plows through an endless succession of prim drawing rooms, manipulating passive-aggressive richies who find the thought of a woman of her age on the prowl not a little bit vexing.
Stillman stormed onto the ’90s indie scene with films about people one didn’t make the heroes of indies, much less show sympathetically. (The others were “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco.”) He was then hit with a grueling 13-year hiatus from the screen, but when he returned — with the delightful “Damsels in Distress” — he was funnier, if anything. His characters are now more absurd, more performative, and his worlds more stylized. (The exception is his Amazon pilot “The Cosmopolitans,” which was belatedly picked up for a season and seems closer to the more recognizably human films with which he made his brand.)