Love and Friendship: A New Gaze at Austen

Director Whit Stillman’s take on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is a riotous and extraordinary film that brings out the best of dry British humour. The costume drama unwraps a comedy of etiquette as Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) flaunts her widowhood. She manipulates the 18th century gentry in her quest to find a moneyed husband for herself, and another for her wilful daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark).

Eligible bachelors in the dashing Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) and the bumbling Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), in contrast to attached gallants in the likes of fine-looking Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin), find much to court. Lady Susan is visibly delightful and privately contemptuous as she consorts in cunning with her exiled American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), whose husband Mr Johnson (Stephen Fry) is ‘too old to be governable, and too young to die’.

A special screening at Cinema Nova culminated with a conversation with Australian actor Xavier Samuel, who burst into the limelight as vampire Riley in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Samuel spoke of the film Love & Friendship’s shooting in Dublin, of his work with extraordinary actors and his awe at ‘the degree of manipulation in an anti-heroine’ who ‘breaks the system’.

Of director Stillman, Samuel said: ‘He’s very meticulous’.

But the actor also allowed that the director’s approach was ‘adaptive and collaborative’, for instance in writing out (during shooting) side-splitting scenes with the blundering Sir James Martin, who gets the audience roaring with his utterance of the name ‘Churchill’. Some acts, Samuel revealed, needed a few takes to quell the film crew’s mirth.

Lady Susan is a curtailed novella—presented as a series of letters shedding insight into their writers’ characters. It was a work never intended to be published. Now it offers an intimate gaze at a young woman with discernment beyond her years. Austen, in this narrative, shapes an anti-hero in a most calculating albeit charming female protagonist.

The acting in Love & Friendship is riveting, in particular in the characters played by Kate Beckinsale, who brings a dose of her Underworld and Van Helsing femme fatale to cool and measured Lady Susan; by Xavier Samuel, who brings his devilish charisma from The Twilight Saga: Eclipse to idealist Reginald; by Tom Bennett who brings his ingenious acting and writerly improvisations of British television to pea-brained Sir Martin; and by silent Lochlann O’Mearáin, who brings his commanding presence and arrogant good looks, which served him well as a Roman Commander in King Arthur, to adulterous Lord Manwaring.

In its stellar cast, the hilarity it brings and the gender-bending role of its main character, Love & Friendship measures up to a 5-star rating.

Director: Whit Stillman
Writers: Jane Austen (based on her novella Lady Susan), Whit Stillman
With: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
Running time: 1hr 32mins
Rating: 5 stars