How Whit Stillman hasn’t made a period piece before “Love and Friendship,” which closed the Wisconsin Film Festival on Thursday, is beyond me.
Stillman is a writer-director who has specialized in comedies like “Metropolitan” and “The Last Days of Disco,” about upper-class folks of refinement and good manners who, beneath their erudite and stylish manners, are just as silly and insecure as the rest of us. Perhaps more so.
In other words, he may be perfectly suited to adapt a Jane Austen novel. But instead of tackling another version of “Emma” or “Pride & Prejudice,” Stillman chose to adapt “Lady Susan,” a novella Austen reportedly wrote at the age of 20.
The stuffiness of the environment, with the beautiful mansions and elegant gowns, seems to have prodded Stillman to be even more playful than usual here. He introduces his large cast of characters in such a rush that it’s obvious he doesn’t expect us to follow who’s who, and he uses on-screen text wittily as characters read letters aloud.
The story follows Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), a master manipulator of the upper class who, now widowed, is looking to secure a new husband and manor. “We don’t live, we visit,” she tells her friend/servant. She’d also like to find a husband for her daughter Federica (Morfydd Clark), who has left private school and seems like much more of a decent person.
Several suitors, suitable and unsuitable, orbit around Lady Susan, and it’s great fun to watch as she manipulates them, totally unaware that they’re being used. Beckinsale previously worked with Stillman on “Last Days of Disco,” and she’s terrific at rattling off his beautifully constructed lines.
But Beckinsale actually gets the movie stolen out from under her by a lesser-known British actor named Tom Bennett, who plays the cheerfully oblivious suitor Sir James Martin. In a war of wits, Martin is totally unarmed, and he hilariously misreads and mangles every possible interaction he has in polite society. In a way, he’s the one person Lady Susan can’t overcome, because he’s so immune to social cues and pressures that he’s kind of invincible.
“Love & Friendship” gets a little less funny in its third act, and I’m still not sure who everybody was on screen and their relations to each other. But it’s a return to form for Stillman, one of the singular voices in filmmaking today. The movie is being released by Amazon Studios, so it will get some kind of theatrical run before being released on Amazon Prime later in the year.