“We don’t live. We visit.”
We should all be thanking whomever recommended Jane Austen‘s Northanger Abbey to Whit Stillman because the edition he read just happened to include the author’s novella “Lady Susan”—a short epistolary romance subverted to conjure the filmmaker’s own specific tone. If we didn’t know the Austen connection we’d think Stillman created this period comedy alone, that’s how perfectly suited to his oeuvre it proves. His trademarked acerbic wit is already present atop haughty characters deluded by their own egos with dialogue colored by an almost lyrical melody to make Love & Friendship a highlight of both artists’ portfolios. In fact, since Stillman’s work is what many would describe as an acquired taste, the source material may render this adaptation to be his most accessible film yet.
The story surrounds Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a widow in search of security for herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). We assume she married her late husband on the hunch that he would die—she laments to best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) that her own Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry) was too old to influence and too young to perish—but she’s now found herself without a home or means to provide one. So she couch-surfs in contemporary terms, leeching off the kindness of strangers until her most recent stop discovers her flirtatious wiles to be too much to bear. It seems she’s bewitched handsome Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin) straight from his wife’s (Jenn Murray‘s Lucy) arms. Unsurprisingly, Lady Susan must find new accommodations.
It appears she’s reached her list’s bottom with one more socially obligated soul left: a sister-in-law (Emma Greenwell‘s Catherine DeCourcy Vernon) she actually tried to prevent from marrying her husband’s brother Charles (Justin Edwards). Despite having shelter again, however, she still needs money and influence since Charles’ comically dry optimism to see the best in people even when they have none can’t last forever. Lady Susan hopes Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a goodly gentleman with a child’s brain of innocent wonderment, will provide both by marrying young Fredericka (who wants nothing to do with him)—a quick fix considering a Manwaring affair is still too damning to her already checkered reputation. But there’s also Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), an unknown commodity who’ll do just fine.
Confused? Wait until these paths start diverting as plans become necessarily severed or counter-plans surface. Catherine wants her brother Reginald to stay far away from Susan (or at least choose Fredericka instead) and enlists her mother’s (Jemma Redgrave) help to concoct a plan smart enough to fool her vainly selfish houseguest into believing she came up with the change in course herself. Add a handful of butlers and servants to serve as eyes and ears for their masters, children barely older than toddlers to use as bargaining chips and deflection, and the threats of returning to the “savagery” of Connecticut (Alicia Johnson’s home) where you never know if a native might scalp you in your sleep and you have Love & Friendship‘s delightfully convoluted machinations and caustic humor.
Beckinsale’s at her best in the lead, delivering Stillman’s words without a shred of irony despite each one betraying her Lady Susan’s mean girl sensibilities. She’s a puppet master for all involved, carefully positioning them where needed in order to prosper in the end. Even if someone catches her deceit, she finds a way to make him/her the person at fault. Did you discover how horrible she is in a private letter meant for someone else? How dare you read it and therefore conjure those thoughts of vile treachery without knowing the motive or context for the laughable words inside. Such maneuvers are so transparently digressions meant to confuse, but she never misses a beat to perform those lies with an authenticity no man dare question.
Stillman skirts with going meta by allowing Catherine the foresight to understand Susan’s moves, delving deep enough into this manipulative flirt’s psyche to scare her mother upon relaying the deftly manufactured processes aloud. Suddenly she’s revealed to being as powerful in her actions for good as Susan is for bad, nudging her husband slightly forward and quietly pulling her brother imperceptibly back. We become so enthralled by Susan’s verbal magic and retelling of it to Alicia afterwards that we ignore Catherine being equal to the task. But who’s to say the latter’s deeds aren’t set in motion by the former with yet another impossibly impressive feat of control? I could watch this film five times in a row, deciphering the intricacies gradually made clearer upon each subsequent view.
For all its expert wit, however, I can’t help acknowledging the true source of my enjoyment as Bennett’s Sir Martin. He’s quite possibly the most memorable character of the year as just seeing his face plastered with a goofy grin and wild eyes masking a vacuum between his ears is enough to settle in your seat and await genius. Labeled as a “Rattle” in Whitman’s hilarious series of brief portraits meant to familiarize the audience with his sprawling cast, Martin proves gleefully astonished by his own stupidity and easily coerced into doing whatever will get him out of the room quickest. He literally forgets what peas are as he plays with the green orbs on his plate in awe of their “sweet flavor”. A Solomon he is not.
While he’s the rube to mock alongside those onscreen, the others are reasonably intelligent in contrast. Well, at least the women are considering the men seem easily led by the hypnosis of their wives or Lady Susan depending on how difficult she’d like to make things for her rivals. Part of Love & Friendship‘s charm is way in which these intelligent people are duped into falling for so preconceived diversions. How they change their own judgments on a given situation 180-degrees in the opposite direction simply due to the whispers of a woman they believe is too smart to be wrong is comedy gold. Stillman and his actors commit so fully to this circus that the relationships most films let lay as fateful coincidence prove precisely planned instead.
 Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett in Whit Stillman’s LOVE & FRIENDSHIP. Photo credit: Bernard Walsh, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
 Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in Whit Stillman’s LOVE & FRIENDSHIP. Photo credit: Bernard Walsh, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
 Emma Greenwell and Xavier Samuel in Whit Stillman’s LOVE & FRIENDSHIP. Photo credit: Bernard Walsh, Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions