Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 13, 2016 10:20 am 
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Whit Stillman happily adapts and transcends a Jane Austen early novella

A Jane Ausen adaptation by Whit Stillman might seem a bit redundant, since from the first scenes of his debut Metropolitan, Stillman's own contemporary dialogue was clearly the closest thing to Austen in American movies. But if there's almost a glut of Jane Austen on screen (her subtle ironies play best on the page), there has never been enough of Whit, and the marriage indeed turns out to be one made in heaven.

This is for several reasons, apart from kindred sensibilities. The production is quite beautiful, and very witty. Characters are introduced with portraits and identifying captions, which conveys a detached 18th-century feel like Tony Richardson's characters addressing the camera in his Tom Jones film. The protagonist, Lady Susan (name of the novella), brilliantly played by Kate Beckensale, star both of the TV Emma and Stillman's Last Days of Disco, is more openly wicked in her schemes to find the safety of a well-off husband than the classic Austen protagonists, making this something new. And in his dramatization of the epistolary original Stillman has seamlessly blended in a fair measure of himself, so in several ways this is an original film. But it's not jokey or falsely modern.

Lady Susan Vernon is an anti-heroine, wicked, clever, scheming, and mean, making her more a satire of Jane Austen's usual protagonists than a straightforward one. Like Elizabeth Bennett and the others, she is looking for the safety of a secure marriage, and in this case also one for her daughter Frederica Vernon (Morfydd Clark), who has just run away from school and been forbidden to return. Lady Susan, now a widow of insufficient means, and thus forced to take an impecunious friend as her unpaid servant, has taken sudden refuge at her in-laws' estate to flee the household of Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin), whom she's just seduced, causing Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray) to make a continual hysterical fuss. Lady Susan now plots with her friend Alice Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), who has married the utterly compliant but boring Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry).

The contrast of marriageable men lies between the near-opposites of the handsome and classy Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) and the silly blockhead Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who is as ignorant of Moses and the Ten Commandments as of poetry and verse, and though he owns a farm, has never seen green peas. He is in love with Frederica, who shuns him. Reginald is becoming inappropriately fascinated by Lady Susan. He is too sound and virtuous for her. Lady Susan quickly contrives (this is a novella; the action is not drawn-out) to get Reginald married to her daughter, and nobly takes on the idiot Sir James, who's so blind he welcomes Lord Manwaring as a houseguest right after their marriage and seems untroubled by Lady Susan's sudden pregnancy. All this, as Stillman handles it, is more suave than giddy. There has always been a deadpan quality about his dialogue which serves here to make the action more subtle and more fun. This is a film that will bear repeated watchings.

There are some flaws. This of necessity lacks the complexity of Jane Austen's mature novels. Regrettably, because I've always loved Chloë Sevigny, and her period costumes seem, as one would wish for such a stylish woman in real life, very much her own, Mike D'Angelo is probably right that her American speech rhythms seem too modern. But the satirical wit holds, and Stillman's dialogue has an exquisite clarity and precise rhythm you won't find in even the best of the other Austen film adaptations, and is free of the conventional romantic clichés.

Love and Friendship, 92 mins., debuted 23 January 2016 at Sundance; 15 other festivals, mostly domestic. US theatrical release 13 May 2016.

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