Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
Director: Whit Stillman
Screenplay: Jane Austen, Whit Stillman
Comedy/Drama/Romance, Rated: PG
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Date: June 3, 2016
It looks like we’re about to review the latest movie from Elizabethan author Jane Austen.
Quite so. Prepare yourself for some old-fashioned mating rituals. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to a middle-aged widow Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). She has burned through her husband’s estate and now is “visiting” friends and family. She has her sights set on a younger eligible bachelor named Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). She seduces the young lad with her advanced womanly wiles.
Meanwhile, Lady Susan is urging her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to wed the wealthy yet silly and dim-witted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). The problem is that Frederica refuses to marry Sir James and would rather lead the impoverished life of a teacher. Meanwhile, this histrionic Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray) is having marital problems with Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin).
Scott, I’m mystified by the attraction of this movie. It was long, dull and nothing but a series of talking heads. The screenplay is based on a never-published story written by Austen when she was 14 years old. There’s a reason this story was never published – it was boring. Writer/Director Whit Stillman took the original work (which was told as a series of letters) and created long scenes of people riding in carriages and talking, eating dinner and talking, walking the grounds and talking, and talking about talking. And the things the characters are talking about are incredibly superficial. It was like someone took a modern soap opera and placed it in the mid 1700s.
The writer didn’t even have the wherewithal to SHOW us what each character contributed to the story. Instead of SHOWING us that someone was dimwitted, there were screen cards before each character entered a scene TELLING us that so-and-so was none-to-bright or was married to such-and-so. The first rule any writer learns is … show, don’t tell. Stillman apparently didn’t go to the right school. I know, some of you think this is part of the joke, the whimsy. It wasn’t. It was simply dumb.
Greg, paradoxically, your harsh critical analysis of Love and Friendship is right on the mark but directed at the wrong target. Jane Austen stories are supposed to be about women talking to women, and women talking to men, about romance, marriage, and the obstacles to both. This movie is cast in the same mold as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in showcasing the sad reality, in the year 1800, of women’s dependency on men for their financial and social standing.
In our most recent book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we discuss many different types of heroes, and one of them is the family unit. Love and Friendship features a family ensemble, with the two main heroes being Lady Susan and her daughter Frederica, both of whom are searching for good husband material. The classic hero’s journey with its masculine bias doesn’t quite fit the Jane Austen mold. This hero’s journey here reflects the prevailing Zeitgeist of Austen’s time, during which the woman’s hero journey is severely limited by patriarchal forces beyond her control. Austen dared to show women with moxie whose pushback against these limitations was heroic and often rewarded.
There’s no doubt that I’m not a fan of Austen’s work. Still, I’ve seen the Emma Thompson version of Sense & Sensibility (1995) and was enchanted. The difference between these films is the craftsmanship and a script that goes beyond the strict interpretation of Austen’s work.
In my mind, this is an anti-hero story. In our definition of the anti-hero, we look for a lead character who starts out negative and ends up even more negative. Lady Susan is manipulative and out for number one. She has thrown her daughter at Sir James who is a nice man but dim witted and naive. She is trying to seduce a younger man (Reginald) for whom she has nothing to offer. And in the end, her daughter gets Reginald and Lady Susan is pregnant with Lord Manwaring’s child while married to Sir James. I have no respect for this woman who takes advantage of everyone around her and has nothing of value to offer in return.
You’re right about Lady Susan’s utter sleaziness in this story. A charitable interpretation of her behavior is that she’s doing her best as a woman trapped in a man’s world. One could say she is merely acting like a man and we’re guilty of applying a double-standard. But yes, I have to side with your anti-hero interpretation. On the bright side, she does try to mentor Frederica, imploring her young daughter to “sell-out” and do what’s practical rather than follow her heart.
This conundrum facing young women is a common theme in Jane Austen’s work. Is this bad mentorship on Lady Susan’s part, or are we to applaud her pragmatism? Probably the former, but many good parents gave their children the same advice. There is other mentorship going on in this film, too, with Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) and Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) dispensing advice here and there. Alas, none of it is very memorable.
Love and Friendship plays to its audience. If you love Jane Austen you will be pleased with this adaptation. However, if, like me, you are of a modern mind you may find this story simplistic and yet difficult to follow in places. The lead character has few redeeming qualities and the people surrounding her aren’t much better. I give L&F just 2 out of 5 Reels.
I think the hero’s journey plays out here alright. While we appear to come in at the “inciting incident” (the point where Lady Susan is cast into the special world of living as a widow), we watch as she overcomes challenges and survives a devastating defeat only to recover and gain a sort of victory where she has one man for money and another for sex. I give Lady Susan just 2 out of 5 Heroes.
Lady Susan is not just the anti-hero, but also a dark mentor. She tries to lead her daughter down the path of dependency. Frederica eschews these lessons (whether she is willful or insightful is unclear) and ultimately wins a virtuous man on her own merits. I give Lady Susan 2 Mentors out of 5.
Love and Friendship is textbook Jane Austen, showcasing the usual assortment of women in need of husbands and men revealing themselves either to be worthy or unworthy of filling this role. All the actors here give wonderful performances, and if you can get over the Austen-esque violation of the show-don’t-tell rule, you’ll have a good time getting to know these characters. I give this movie 3 Reels out of 5.
The anti-hero story of Lady Susan is done well here, as she shows herself to be conniving, manipulative, and deceitful. We can’t really apply Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth to this story, as Lady Susan is hampered by the limitations placed on women of that era. She and Frederica navigate this world in very different ways. I give the heroes in this story a rating of 2 out of 5. In terms of mentorship, there are attempts at mentorship but none of them turn out to be very effective. Therefore I award this movie a mentorship rating of 2 out of 5, also.