Cinematic evil has a new name thanks to the unexpected alliance of Jane Austen and Whit Stillman.
Well, maybe not so unexpected. Stillman’s comedies of manners (“Metropolitan,” “Damsels in Distress”) have always shared Austen’s concerns with social status and romantic self-fulfillment while casting a satirical eye on human foible.
It’s just that this time Stillman has gone to the source and, for my money, come up with the best film of his career.
“Love & Friendship” is based on Austen’s unfinished novel Lady Susan, which was not published until 100 years after her death. It is largely unknown even to fans of her masterpieces, “Pride & Prejudice” and “Sense & Sensibility,” largely because it is unbelievably dark, with a “heroine” who would be repulsive if she didn’t so effectively couch her sociopathy in Georgian good manners.
One of Austen’s big topics — the necessity of single ladies finding suitable mates — is once again explored, but this time without a shred of romance. All is calculation, subterfuge and scheming.
The recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (a sensational Kate Beckinsale) is cast adrift without a man or the money to continue her highfalutin’ lifestyle. About all she has going for her is reputation for desirability and borderline scandalous behavior — that and the ability to charm her way past weaker minds (which in her reckoning means the rest of mankind).
As “Love & Friendship” begins (and the title is supremely ironic), Lady Susan pays a visit to her sister-in-law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell) and her kindly, impossibly thick husband (Justin Edwards). There’s never a question of thanking her moneyed in-laws for putting her up. Lady Susan operates on the principle that as a special person this simply is her due.
Any discussion of her paying her way, she observes, “would be offensive to us both.”
Her agenda — shared only with her friend and co-conspirator, the American Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) — is to find suitable mates both for herself and for her mousey daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who is about to be thrown out of her ritzy boarding school.
First to be targeted is Catherine’s younger brother Reginald De Croucey (Xavier Samuel), who is technically Susan’s brother-in-law. Reginald is a handsome but rather nondescript fellow who is putty in the hands of the charming and eloquent interloper. Catherine and other female relations see red flags, but are powerless to undermine his infatuation. (In the world of “Love & Friendship,” men are incredibly bad judges of character.)
A second possible husband appears in the form of Sir James Martin (a scene-stealing Tom Bennett), a hilarious nitwit so slow that you can actually see thoughts travel across his features. But he’s got money and status, which makes him prime pickings. (Stillman helps us sort out a plethora of characters by giving each a sort of title card that pops up on the screen to explain who they are. Sir James’ describes him as “vastly rich, rather simple and a bit of a ‘rattle’.”)
The trick with an enterprise like this is to have a heroine whose awfulness is offset by her charm. Beckinsale is just about perfect, delivering complicated and fiercely witty dialogue (Lady Susan is an expert at saying something that at first seems neutral or positive, but upon brief reflection turns out to be a slam) with disconcerting ease.
Moreover, Susan is a completely amoral character. Under most circumstances this would make her an iffy center for a film, but in Beckinsale’s hands she is so effective at selling her snake oil (save in those scenes with Sevigny when she shares her stratagems), that you’re willing to put up with the selfishness, deception, exploitation and conniving just to see this magnificent demon in action.
At 92 minutes “Love & Friendship” fairly races along and, while like its central character it may not have much substance, it’s certainly entertaining.