Sundance Review: Love & Friendship
There are many reasons one might be drawn to the works of Jane Austen. Maybe it's the regency period love stories that strike an Austen lover's fancy. Or maybe "Janeites" just love the strong, yet flawed heroines who were ahead of their time...the heroines who come of age on the pages and learn valuable lessons. Perhaps you love her novels because you find her writing deliciously witty and you enjoy her social satire commentary. Such comedy of errors usually present themselves as a result of the inclusion of token Austen characters, such as: the meddling mothers, scheming villainesses, pompous oblivious fools, etc. Maybe you delight in those characters because there's always that strong heroine observing them and how ridiculous their actions are. Or perhaps there isn't just one thing you like about Austen, but rather the way she takes all these elements together and blends them into the perfect concoction. If you took away any single ingredient, the recipe would feel like it's off. Such is the case in my reaction to Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship, anadaptation of the unpublished (during her lifetime) Jane Austen novella Lady Susan.
Before I get into my criticisms of the film, I will admit that the context in which I'm seeing this film most definitely has a strong influence on my reaction here. In the last week, I've seen some truly amazing films and after awhile, it's hard not to pit them against each other and constantly compare the strengths and weaknesses. So understand here that I know I think I might being too harsh...(had I seen this in a barren wasteland of a movie month, I might have eaten it up with pleasure,) but as it was I couldn't help but be frustrated with how close Stillman was to getting what I wanted out of the movie, but falling short. When I watched the film, I couldn't help but think to myself "now I know why Jane never published this." Though it certainly has wit and charm to spare, it does not have the lessons or depths that her published novels do. Essentially, it feels like Austen fluff.
The problem with Love & Friendship is, it centers around a deliciously scheming villainess but doesn't give you anyone to root for as a foil. Stillman and all the characters try to convince the audience to root for Lady Susan's daughter Frederica...but the problem is she's totally bland and boring as a heroine (I would say largely due to casting.) I understand if you can't have the character be fiery and passionate to take away from Beckinsale's Lady Susan, but characters with a quiet strength and reserve can be someone the audience can still root for (a non Austen-example is Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, and an Austen example being Emma Thompson in Sense & Sensibility.) Had the role gone to an actress with a more striking presence, the issues of a lack of heroine and love story wouldn't exist because we'd be rooting for her growth (as well as to be the one to snag the hunk in the end.) Instead, Beckinsale steals the show....and while it's fun to see her schemes play out and to have an Austen film centered around a character like her, it just never seems like it's leading to anything more worthwhile.
For what it's worth, Love & Friendship certainly is enjoyable. The film makes use of a visual flair and unique storytelling methods to tell its simple story. For each character, we receive a title card informing us who they are and why they're important to the whole scheme of things. Everything is so breezy, you get the exact sense of what Love & Friendship wants to be and the depth (or lack of,) it's willing to settle for. If it were an original piece without any ties to anyone, it would be unquestioningly delightful; the problem is, in comparison to other works of Austen it simply feels unbalanced. Had Stillman worked a little harder to cast the supporting roles, everything might have been more easily forgiven, but as it is, I can't help but feel that the film just ever so slightly missed the mark.