The wonder of looking at a CGI dinosaur lumber across the screen has long worn off. We now yawn while watching superheros battle it out high above a city landscape. Bubbling volcanos, the Earth splitting open, mythical beasts. Seen it. Over it. Next! We’ve been bombarded by so many big budget digital blasts that they no longer look cool or memorable. So when a movie like Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship comes along with dialogue that crackles and jumps off the screen, you truly savor the moment.
Stillman, the underrated genius behind indie classics like Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco, tells us right away that the special effect of Love & Friendship is the words. Clever captions done with his signature wit adorn characters’ faces as introductions, not just to players of this biting, heartwarming tale but as a technique he’ll use throughout the film. Letters, poems, items read aloud are also given a visible onscreen scroll. But ever the master of taste and manners, Stillman doesn’t let this trick overstay its welcome. He instead dishes it out at precisely the right occasion. And in the world of Love & Friendship, timing is everything. Based on a forgotten Jane Austen novella entitled Lady Susan from the late 1700’s, the movie shows up long after the 90’s trend of Austen movies has run its course. Instead it arrives at moment when the movies need gleefully bitchy and delightfully snarky conversation more than ever. Given the twist of Stillman’s pen, Austen has never felt so alive or of the moment.
The story, like most good ones, is easy: Lady Susan (played with career-best finesse by Kate Beckinsale) is a widow who couch crashes in English estates while breaking hearts and pissing off uppity ladies of the manor wherever she lands. Lady Susan needs to put her puppet master skills to work if she wants to keep food in her belly and roof over her head. Turns out, the gig of widow isn’t really a high paying one. Lady Susan also has a train wreck of a teenage daughter recently bounced from a private school she has to figure what to do with too. Don’t let the publicity stills of ladies in costume grasping each other’s hands fool you: the work of Love & Friendship is dirty business and delightfully so. Lady Susan can handle the task of securing a rich husband for herself and her daughter but she needs a collaborator. That’s when American gal pal Alicia(Chloe Sevigny) comes in. Sevigny and Beckinsale played frenimies back in 1998 in Stillman’s own Last Days of Disco. Here, however, the pair personify the “friendship” part of the film’s title. Banned by her husband from seeing Lady Susan, Alicia nevertheless always finds a way to help her buddy move the chess pieces in any way she can. Their affection for one another is so genuine that when the pair triumphs, we rejoice right along with them. With all of the shady letter passing and life manipulating going on in Love & Friendship, it’s hard not to think of Dangerous Liaisons. But this film uses humor instead of destruction as its way in. And boy is it funny. Stillman peppers the script with so many great one-liners you might feel inclined to watch it again just to catch the ones you laughed over the first time around. There are two or three really smart on-going inside jokes that thread through the movie which let us laugh along with the characters too. Throw in some truly great comic performances (Tom Bennett as Sir James is a real standout) and you have a film that’s as funny as it is devious.
Personally, as both a word nerd and a movie fanatic, Love & Friendship checked all of the boxes. I’m my happiest at a film when smart characters are saying smart things. Stillman assumes we the audience can keep up and that alone, in the age of Marvel-ization filmmaking, feels revelatory. From knockout performances and gorgeous costumes to great pacing and yes wonderful dialogue, the film’s unheard of 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is no mystery. There’s a lot of chatter online from fans of the film that Stillman should go back and direct versions of all Jane Austen books. Given his fresh take on Austen, it’s hard not to hop on that bandwagon. Yet what makes Love & Friendship so good is how individual it is and that’s something, like a good friendship, to truly cherish.