Whit Stillman (“Metropolitan,” “The Last Days of Disco”) has always been a master at dialogue. As a big fan of Jane Austen’s work, it’s interesting that Stillman adapted one of her least known works, “Lady Susan.” Austen, having written comedic characters even in the midst of all her romantic drama and whose work feels on par artistically with Whitman, has always written interesting characters. Whitman takes these characters and finds the charm and delight in “Love & Friendship,” enough to be somewhat entertaining, but not completely enthralling.
Kate Beckinsale is Lady Susan, a rich widow who comes to stay with her late husband’s brother and his family. Seemingly passing through, she plays matchmaker to her daughter, Frederica (Morfyyd Clark) and herself, playing all sides in the most manipulative, but comedic way. Along with her best friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), an American exiled to England and whose husband is always threatening to send her back, Lady Susan plots and plans, all while being the talk of impropriety among the bored and rich of high society.
It’s Lady Susan’s sister-in-law’s (Emma Greenwell) brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), who becomes enamored with her and all her uppity talk about everything and nothing. So taken with her, Reginald doesn’t even realize that Lady Susan is using him, while Frederica is left trying to escape the overly affectionate and socially awkward Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).
Stillman, in full comedic fashion, introduces each of his characters before they appear, summarizing who they are, and their primary characteristics to the audience. “Love & Friendship” is witty and the lead characters are so cavalier about everything that we can’t help but laugh at their insane antics, even when they get to be a bit too ridiculous. Stillman has a knack here for making some of the dialogue work. However, about halfway through, the film begins dragging a bit because it feels like the same thing over again, going on for too long. The humor is very, very dry, and goes by at the blink of an eye. There are instances when the humor doesn’t stick and moments when certain character interactions don’t feel organic in the setting they occupy.
However, one of the best parts of “Love & Friendship,” and quite honestly the breakout performance of the film, is that of Tom Bennett’s portrayal of Sir James Martin. His lovable quirkiness and overly talkative nature makes every social situation he finds himself in awkward. He’s naive, but so gentleman-like, that it’s difficult not to like him, even in all his inane forwardness and inability to read situations. He also balances being silly with being downright entertaining.
All in all, “Love & Friendship” is hit and miss, most especially during the second half of the film. However, there is still plenty of entertainment to be gained from watching, even if it’s not a film you’ll hold to memory. Its strengths lie in the characters and their interactions and the ridiculousness of its overall plot. Lady Susan and Alicia Johnson are invariably silly and bored, but if they can manage to piss off high society, then it’s intriguing enough to watch.
All in all, "Love & Friendship" is hit and miss, most especially during the second half of the film. Lady Susan and Alicia Johnson are invariably silly and bored, but if they can manage to piss off high society, then it's intriguing enough to watch.