'Love & Friendship': Sundance Review

Snappy, lightweight Jane Austen.

Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny reunite with their 'Last Days of Disco' director Whit Stillman for an adaptation of a Jane Austen novella.

A breezy twirl back into Jane Austen’s world after a bit of a cinematic layoff, Love & Friendship also marks the welcome return of American indie stalwart Whit Stillman five years after his considerably less felicitous Damsels in Distress. Cheeky in its approach as well as spirited and good-natured, this enterprising adaptation of the author’s relatively unfamiliar early novella Lady Susan remains buoyant through most of its short running time but lacks the stirring emotional hooks found in the best Austen works, on the page as well as the screen. Still, Austen has normally been a good box-office name, and this early release from Amazon Studios via Roadside Attractions could stir up some modest business in limited release prior to its small-screen debut.

That Stillman intends to have eccentric fun with his first adaptation of outside material is expressed at the outset with the pairing of his Last Days of Disco leading ladies Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, unconventional opening titles and a speed-dial approach to introducing the cast of characters (a method so rapid that it’s obvious he doesn’t expect the viewer to absorb it completely, if at all).

The crux of the issue, however, is that beautiful widow Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale) has, as she bluntly puts it, “no money and no husband” when she arrives for a stay at the lavish estate of her in-laws until some untoward gossip about her is eclipsed by fresher preoccupations among the chattering class.

In due course, her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) arrives after having been expelled from a tony school, and the amorous match-ups that slowly materialize are surprising; for her part, Lady Susan is assiduously attended by handsome younger courtier Reginald DeCourcey (Xavier Samuel, very good in the sort role Hugh Grant played in his youth), a relationship largely played out during long, decorous walks in the extensive gardens. For her part, the teenaged Frederica is doted upon by a somewhat older and filthy-rich blithering idiot, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett, quite funny in the film’s most ostentatious turn).

Lady Susan also has a good close friend in Alicia Johnson (Sevigny), an American woman living in Britain. Little is made of this, although it could have been, given the Crown’s very recent loss of its large American colony; Austen is thought to have written Lady Susan in 1790, when she was about 20, although it wasn’t published until her nephew undertook the project in 1871.

No matter who’s around, Lady Susan does most of the talking, issuing incisive views on everything in quasi-Wildean turns of phrase well ahead of their time, interrupting whenever the turn of a discussion doesn’t suit her and prone to making both self-serving remarks as well as blunt assessments of her own reduced status that are surprising in their frankness. She’s an Olympian talker, and one sometimes wishes there was someone else who could dish back at her as well as she gives. There aren’t great depths to the role, but Beckinsale excels with the long speeches and in defining her character as a very self-aware egoist.

At a certain point, Lady Susan decides she’s exceeded her welcome in the country and takes up residence in London, where the stars’ alignment begins to change in ways that she believes she can manipulate to the benefit of herself and her daughter. At this stage, one awaits the little emotional depth charge that normally accompanies the denouement of an Austen piece when the people who should end up together almost invariably do so. But it doesn’t come, which might be what costs the film commercially with audiences normally responsive to this sort of high-toned but entirely accessible piece.

Although it’s difficult even by the end to entirely sort out who’s related to whom and how, the actors acquit themselves nicely, and it’s always good to have Stephen Fry around in this sort of tony affair, even if he’s restricted to just making sage remarks from time to time.

Shot entirely in Ireland, mostly in 18th century great houses, Love & Friendship is nicely decked out on a budget.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Distributor: Amazon Studios, Roadside Attractions
Production: Amazon Studios, Westerly Films, Blinder Films, Chic Films
International sales: Protagonist Pictures
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Tom Bennett, Morfydd Clark, Jemma Redgrave, James Fleet, Jenn Murray, Stephen Fry
Director: Whit Stillman
Screenwriter: Whit Stillman, based on the novella
Lady Susan by Jane Austen
Producers: Whit Stillman, Katie Holly, Lauranne Bourrachot
Executive producers: Russell Pennover, Collin DeRham, Kieron J. Walsh, Nigel Williams
Director of photography: Richard van Oosterhout
Production designer: Anna Rackard
Costume designer: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh

Editor: Sophie Corra
Music: Benjamin Esdraffo
Casting: Colin Jones, Kerry Bardem, Paul Schnee

Not rated, 92 minutes