Whit Stillman has been often called the Waspy Woody Allen. As in some of Allen’s earlier work, Stillman’s films are, at their core, autobiographical. Mostly taking place in New York, these films depict with clarity, intelligence, sensitivity, and gentle humour and irony the manners, mores, morality, and style of a certain subset of New York society. That is to say, waspy upper-class and upper-income preppies, trust funders, and Hamptonites — and the women who want to date them, bed them, and marry them.
In such terrific 1990s films as Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, Stillman, from an insider’s perspective, sets up the strict societal rules within which his characters must operate. Stillman then slyly comments upon and satirizes theses very same societal conventions, especially through his alter ego, played by the sardonic Chris Eigeman (who appeared in each of the aforementioned films).
In Love and Friendship, Whitman has rediscovered his unique singular voice. Stillman has taken Jane Austen’s pre-Pride and Prejudice minor epistolary novel, Lady Susan, her characters, and some of her very sharp observations, and has crafted a brilliantly funny and pointed comedy of manners … or ill manners.
Austen/Stillman’s dialogue sparkles and pops with cutting observations and insightful yet cynical societal comments.
It’s positively Oscar Wilder-ian.
Take, for example, Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) describing an unsuitable suitor as “too old to be governed, too young to die.” Or when she positively describes her one true friend and confidante, American-born Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), as “an American who has none of the uncouthness, but all of the candor.” Yet another time, Lady Susan describes Americans (who at the time had recently became independent of England) as “ingrates,” and wisely states that “only by having children we can understand that dynamic.”
The film is in part a late-18th century costume comedy set in various lavish English country estates, replete with servants and large estate rooms. In terms of setting, think Downton Abbey.
But instead of the moral and honorable Lady Mary, Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan is a totally captivating, cunning, scheming, and seductive widow, dressed in gorgeous, long and flowing black dresses. She exudes style and grace, and her manners are outwardly impeccable. But due to her unfortunate impecunious state, Lady Susan’s only goals goal in life are to secure a rich husband for herself and her only daughter, Frederica.
In my opinion, this is Beckinsale’s best film role. She is simply brilliant as the very strong, intelligent, and manipulative Lady Susan, who knows and understands the strict societal rules under which she must survive and attempt to succeed. And she does it all without losing her independent spirit or compromising her strong sexual desires.
Chloe Sevigny’s portrayal as Lady Susan’s co-conspirator in societal crime is also excellent. As is the role of the idealistic suitor for Lady Susan, Reginald. Played by Xavier Samuel, Reginald is totally smitten with the beautiful Lady Susan. This brings much horror to his wealthy sister and even wealthier parents, who rightfully fear that the conniving Lady Susan is only interested in Reginald’s bank account and material assets, not in his heart.
Comic relief is provided by the outrageous Sir James (Tom Bennett), a very wealthy and young(ish) land owner. His cluelessness about all things “normal” (describing peas as green little balls), his bizarre discovery that the estate Churchill is not a separate Church and Hill, and his off-the-wall commentary of the Twelve Commandments steal the show.
Ironically, the buffoonish Sir James delivers Whitman’s underlying core message that morality, or what is right, should supersede mere societal mores or fashion.
Throughout the screening, the packed audience at the Varsity Cinema chuckled and responded to every brilliant repartee and riposte. This is a film worth seeing more than once, chock full of witty lines and laugh-out-loud ironic asides. (Some of which I unfortunately missed on first viewing.)
I predict this brilliant script will be nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Welcome back, Sir Whitman of Stillman.