Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Movie Review: “Love & Friendship”

Dating back to his 1990 debut, the patrician characters in the films of writer-director Whit Stillman have spoken with erudition unique to the upper-class milieus they populate. Whether it’s the debutante balls of “Metropolitan,” Ivy Leaguers’ discotheque downtimes in “The Last Days of Disco” or the elite university cliques in “Damsels in Distress,” his youthful characters are as unlikely to stammer through a series of “likes” and “ums” as they are to besmirch their bloodlines with a four-letter word.

Brutally articulate to their own occasional downfall, they speak more like literary critics or armchair philosophers than any contemporary postgrad I’ve ever met. So perhaps it was only a matter of time until Stillman set a movie in a period where, if the books of the era tell us anything, everybody in the civilized classes spoke with such barbed eloquence: late 18th century England.

“Love & Friendship,” which opens in South Florida today, is adapted, freely and effervescently, from Jane Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan. But in turning a book written in one-sided correspondence into a movie bubbling with inspired dialogue, Stillman essentially penned the screenplay from scratch, and his witty, sardonic imprint is all over it.

Kate Beckinsale is pitch-perfect as Lady Susan Vernon, a widowed schemer who is as alluring as she is phony. She’s prone to empty formalities, pretentious decrials (“Americans really have shown themselves to be a nation of ingrates”) and opportunistic, uninformed Bible-thumping. When she’s not pursuing other men—bachelors and married friends alike—she fantasizes about the deaths of the meddling husbands and fathers who stand in the way of her Machiavellian plotting.

And what is her plot, exactly? It’s as simple and as complicated as finding a husband for herself and for her sensitive daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). That the same man, extended relative Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), seems to be the most appropriate catch for both eligible Vernons is a minor quibble that, surely, a little finesse and persuasion and cruel machinations can rectify.

Minimalist in plot but maximalist in scope, “Love & Friendship” is an ambitious ensemble piece that probably takes multiple viewings to fully absorb. At least 11 characters have significant speaking roles, and even more of them are introduced, with their names and titles written on the screen in a manner befitting a television drama, in the movie’s opening scenes—a dizzying procession of periwigs and corsets better appreciated at a novel reader’s self-controlled pace.

Once you fall into its groove, though, “Love & Friendship” sparkles with celibate charm and sophistication. No bodices are ripped onscreen, because with Stillman, it’s the words that cut, not the images that smolder. With a few exceptions, his preference as director is to play this material as straight as can be, eschewing anachronistic music and postmodern dialogue and simply succumbing to the environment—whose amorality, jealousy, daftness, sweetness and, yes, love and friendship, need no 21st century window dressing.

“Love & Friendship” is now playing at Cinemark Palace, Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, Cinemark Boynton Beach, Muvico Parisian in West Palm Beach, CInepolis in Jupiter, the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale and more.

John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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