Forget the romantic trappings of Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen just became an unexpected source of gut-busting comedy and ridiculous wit.
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In the 1790s, the Vernons of Churchill await the arrival of their sister-in-law Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), a recent widow known as the most accomplished flirt in all of England. Word of her seductive acts and affairs have begun circulating around her old estate, so she seeks a temporary stay at the country home to wait out the rumours, and to potentially secure a wealthy husband for her introverted daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) – and for herself.
Nearly three decades after a playful critique of Jane Austen’s works in his debut feature Metropolitan, Whit Stillman (Barcelona, Damsels in Distress) progresses, quite naturally, into adapting Austen for his latest feature, Love & Friendship. His intellectual, ironic-romantic trademarks are painted lavishly onto an often-forgotten early novel of the great writer. The result is the most craftily self-aware and most entertaining Austen has ever been.
Kate Beckinsale and co-star Chloë Sevigny reunite with their Last Days of Disco director, and though both actresses’ careers have sprouted off in different directions since, this reunion confirms that Stillman knows just how to bring the best out in each of them. Sevigny shares some charismatic banter with her co-star, but it’s Beckinsale that truly (and finally) comes into her own . Having become typecast as the kick-ass sexy action girl for much of her career, she’s finally been given the chance to show off her acting chops. She forms the film’s gravitational pull as the cunning yet utterly charming Lady Susan. It’s tempting to think of her as an ancestor to Beckinsale’s Last Days of Disco character; both exhorting power over their peers through their sexuality, though Lady Susan is considerably more dignified and in control. If you’ve only ever seen Beckinsale in the Underworld series, prepare to be wowed.
Amazingly, the rest of the ensemble almost effortlessly match her, with a few even managing to swindle some scenes for their own splendour. Aussie Xavier Samuel is effortlessly pleasant, fresh-faced Morfydd Clark affirms a very bright future ahead of her, and Stephen Fry is always a welcome presence. Tom Bennett, meanwhile, walks away with every uproarious frame he’s in; his buffoonish suitor’s many dopey assumptions are comedic treasure.
Love & Friendship is quick-witted, sweet and so lively that it’s easy to miss the incredible attention to detail in recreating its early modern era. Its lavish costume design and almost pornographic high-end country manor photography creates a divinely coated environment. Love & Friendship is breezy, farcical fun unlike Pride and Prejudice aficionados ever dreamed of – pure dope for Austen and Stillman fans alike, and an absolutely delightful affair.
Love & Friendship is available in Australian cinemas from July 21
Image courtesy of Transmission Films