“Love and Friendship” takes us back in time to the 1800’s where women may not have worn the pants in the house, but they most certainly spun a tangled and complicated web to set their futures. Starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, this adaptation from a lesser known work from Jane Austen, “Lady Susan,” is transformed from a set of letters to a brilliantly funny screenplay and film. Written and directed by Whit Stillman, “Love and Friendship” captures the era and the intricacies of the eloquence of language with outright hilarity.
I had the opportunity to talk with Stillman about writing and adapting this film as well as directing it. His insight and matter-of-fact style shone through not only our conversation, but also in the film.
The film’s premise finds Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale) as an upper-class yet penniless widow who becomes the house-guest of relatives throughout England. As with most relatives, there comes a time that she overstays her welcome and chaos and turmoil arise forcing her to move on to the next home. While staying at her in-laws, Lady Susan attempts to be a matchmaker for her daughter Frederica. Of course she has her own self-serving objectives and is focused on finding her future husband as well.
Stillman admitted that taking this book of letters which are not written in dramatic format was a bit daunting at first. He compared it to shuffling a deck of cards. “You take material from one side of the correspondents and put it against the observations from the other side…” He felt that “…it was better because everything had to be reimagined as a dramatic story. It made me reconsititute everything in a form that would work better in a film.” He knew that the two main characters, Lady Susan and Alicia Johnson (Sevigny) needed to be brought to life as they were very “…scheming, very funny women plotting their lives and their futures. There’s a lot of chaos and comedy that comes straight from the letters, but I knew I had to create other characters in the story.”
Stillman did just that. The additional cast members are all very rich and were actually not fleshed out until they began actual filming. It was definitely a work in progress. Using well-known British comedic actors brings humor into each and every scene. Tom Bennett, as Stillman said, “…can make the answer to ‘How are you’ incredibly funny.” It’s quite true. Bennett’s character of Sir James Martin is awkwardly charming with unexpected timing and physical reactions that will make you laugh aloud.
Beckinsale as comedic actor isn’t what one would typical categorize her. However, she masterfully takes this complicated and dialogue heavy role and runs with it—every so gracefully. Her character is insightful and honest yet so terribly narcissistic that you can’t help but love her as you abhore her behavior that is really all very justified. Stillman knew that he wanted Beckinsale to play this role after working with her in a previous film, “The Last Days of Disco,” and after seeing her in a Jane Austen mini series. He says, “This is exactly Kate Beckinsale’s cup of tea.”
The women in this film appear to have puppet strings on the men as they orchestrate their futures. I asked Stillman if this is typical of Austen’s book and that era to portray women in this way. He laughed as he responded, “It’s typical of the world for all time. I don’t think women have been quite so powerless as is sometimes alleged.” I’m sure there’s a story behind that, but we stuck to the topic of the movie. Writing the complicated dialogue exchanges, particularly between the two best friends, pleasantly pushes the viewer to hang on every spoken word. It’s lyrical and poetic yet powerful and eloquent. The description of Lady Susan as a “demonic genius” or one of Stillman’s favorite lines, “Facts are horrid things,” are just two examples of the numerously brilliant utterances. Stillman continues to explain why he loves that particular line. “I think people are more sympathetic if they acknowledge their badness rather than denying it. That is sort of admitting that everything said is true and just how inconvenient that is.”
In closing, I asked Stillman what he thought Ms. Austen’s reaction to his film would be if she was still around. After he gasped, he said, “I think it would be all fine with her. Except I’m not sure if the twist at the end might have been too risqué. But she’s pretty risqué to have written this text so she might remember her youthful point of view when she wrote this.” I’m sure she would be more than pleased with how Stillman not only brought this novella to life, but also with how this film will bring a love of literature to readers not yet familiar with Austen.
“Love & Friendship” is currently playing in the Chicago area at the following locations: AMC River East, Landmark Century Centre Cinema, and Century 12 Evanston