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Love & Friendship - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Love & Friendship
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Love & Friendship plays a little more like an Oscar Wilde play, with its consistently witty dialogue, than your typical Jane Austen adaptation. Being directed and written by Whit Stillman, who also did The Last Days of Disco (1998), it's not particularly a surprise. Okay, I was a little surprised by how funny Love & Friendship was, because I didn't realize Whit Stillman did it until I just looked up the movie on imdb.com.

Period-piece adaptations of literary works from different centuries can be tricky. If you're a die-hard Jane Austen fan -- and still they are legion -- it probably doesn't matter much, but if you're a casual fan like myself, the dialogue can sometimes go a bit over your head. There were moments in this film where I found it difficult to follow what people were talking about. It's something akin to trying to make sense of Shakespeare when you only have a cursory understanding of his work.

That said, as with Shakespeare performances, a great deal of meaning comes through in the performances. And everything about the presentation of this particular movie, which is based on a novella Austen never submitted for publication, is all in good fun. Stillman is particularly playful with the material, using title cards and then stand-still shots to introduce each character in the beginning. And it doesn't take long to figure out that Lady Susan (that name being the title of Austen's original novella), as the central character in the story, is a manipulative yet charming schemer hell bent on finding a match for both her daughter Frederica and her widowed self.

Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) comes to visit her late husband's sister Catherine (Emma Greenwell) and his brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel) at Churchill, their estate. In the meantime, Lady Susan's daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), desperately trying to avoid the advances of the well-off but bumbling Sir James (Tom Bennett), is having trouble at her school, and winds up being sent to Churchill while Lady Susan is there. Lady Susan thinks her daughter should accept the man's proposal but Frederica can't bear it.

Although Lady Susan is at the center of all this, there are countless characters surrounding her, too many to name. Two of particular note include Lady Susan's friend and confidant Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny; she also starred with Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco), and Alicia's husband Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry). Stephen Fry gets all of one scene in the film, much less than his billing in the opening credits would suggest, which is most disappointing.

It's lovely, though, to see a movie filled with so many female characters -- at least as many as the male ones, and most with far more significant parts. This is a story about strong women manipulating their way through the deeply sexist machinations of their time, and although the whole story is indeed about them finding and keeping a man, it still easily passes the Bechdel Test many times over. In fact, men are treated lovingly but still a bit like they are generally idiots.

The best thing about Love & Friendship is its wonderfully comic sensibility, something that stops short of being screwball due to the confines of aristocratic social mores. For lovers of both Jane Austen and period pieces, this just adds to the experience. I expected this movie to be amusing and still I laughed much more than I expected to. And the performers charm across the board; even and particularly Kate Beckinsale, who could have come across as villainous with all her scheming but instead grounds the film as a woman who insists on facing her lot in life with good humor instead of contempt.

Kate Beckinsale is a master manipulator in LOVE & FRIENDSHIP.

Overall: B+
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