Austen-lite – the author’s trademark disdain for polite society is on full display in Whit Stillman’s condensed, easily consumable ode to the Bath legend’s inestimable literary canon.
Any fan of Austen or Wilde alike will eat this up, with Love & Friendship too hosting a great deal of the latter’s sagacious stylings. As you would expect with any Austen adaptation, there’s a batch of aristocrats, some eligible bachelors, some not so eligible bachelors, at least one person not too content with the traditional male/female dynamic (a delightful Kate Beckinsale who doesn’t miss a beat) and more than a few scandals brewing.
Revamped from a lesser-known Austen novella, there is considerably less material to play with here which will no doubt irk fans of the numerous film/television portrayals of Austen’s life and works who may desire but cannot always rely on the kinds of fleshed out characters and story naturally incumbent in any accomplished realisation of her novels. With no end of Austen adaptations demonstrating that film is not the ideal medium for the genre given the time constraints, the Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle BBC mini-series still boasting a very high benchmark, Love & Friendship overcomes this barrier through reveling in deliberately lighter fare, significantly better suited to the film’s 90-minute run time.
Instead of making his characters jump through too many hoops or plot machinations, Stillman takes the author’s quintessential abstractions and skilfully subsumes them into a fleeting, greatest hits catalogue of Austen told through a happily distinct, if not unfamiliar story. Love & Friendship is not trying to be as profound as Pride and Prejudice, nor settle simply for the story’s enjoyable irreverence, instead finding a welcome middle ground. Subject to a perfunctory and abrupt ending, this is never quite like walking through the halls of Pemberley, yet is still hugely rewarding for its dexterous treatment of the author’s well-known acuity.
Lady Susan (Beckinsale) showcases both traits of Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth and her colourful family members all in one marvellous creation. A capable, determined widow steadfast in her desire to marry off her daughter and resolute in refusing to conform to what is generally expected of her, Lady Susan is too pointedly referred to as the greatest flirt in all of England. Contending with Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), amongst others, what could as well have been the delivery of one-liners or passing gags takes over whole scenes as a result of Bennett’s hilarious portrayal. Evocative of an oft more absurd and downright uproarious version of Mr Collins, Sir James attempting to explain his pronunciation of ‘Churchill’ or going about any number of regular interactions will strike a very funny chord with any Austen fan, wisely resting for long stretches on the talented performer’s antics.
Stephen Fry too pops in to sport some of the film’s piercing witticisms and repartee, of which there is no shortage. Not fully-fledged Austen, Love & Friendship, if wrapped up all too neatly, is just that welcome bit of fun for devotees of the author sick to death of adaptations that never do her justice.
Love & Friendship screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival – for more information head to the Festival website