Dir: Whit Stillman
While the period drama is a singularly popular genre, boasting a fine number of British gems, the sub-genre of period comedy is severely less populated by comparison. With Jane Austen’s work providing the source for many of the most successful adaptations, an underplayed comic touch is often used as light relief against the dramatic weight of the core narrative. Love & Friendship pushes the humour very much front and centre-stage. At once, then, the tone feels refined, refreshing, and relishingly light-hearted.
Instant enjoyment is to be found in the archaic formality of the language. An unapologetically dialogue-heavy play, it’s a joy to revel in the exceptional politeness with which all are addressed. Regardless of social standing. And this is a world of grossly varying status, indeed one in which each individual’s class position is, inevitably, immediately obvious. Just as rewarding, visually, are the elaborate costumes and opulent backdrops and interiors. Whilst such accoutrements of luxury are a key draw of the period piece, here, such ostentatious finery helps the levity along by providing a ready-made sprinkling of the faintly ridiculous.
Atop this sumptuous fondant fancy sits a brilliantly judged performance from Kate Beckinsale. We are in her company for the vast majority of the runtime, and her guile is endlessly captivating, her piercingly intelligent charm unfailingly convincing. On the few occasions we leave her circle, we ‘come round’, we realise her deviousness, her calculated duplicity, as stark as daylight. Even so, we fall straight back under her spell as soon as we are returned to her. And willingly too. This canny device is the foundation of the film’s success: we entirely believe in her persuasive cunning. We’ve swallowed it, hook, line and sinker, ourselves.
As does Xavier Samuel as DeCourcy, her dashing and effortlessly attractive beau. He seems all the more alluring against a wonderfully drippy turn from Tom Bennett, the most prized jewel in this impressively bedecked comedy crown. Perfectly cast, he capitalises on his proven comic credentials from TV hits PhoneShop (2009 – 2013), and the under-rated Family Tree (2013). In all three he shines as the star idiot of the enterprise, but one whose relentlessly innocent optimism always wins out. Perfectly aware he is his peers’ intellectual inferior, his childish inability to care provides this vivacious vignette’s high points.
Typically for a literary adaptation, it’s a long list of players, and it may prove a challenge to keep up with all supporting characters for those unfamiliar with the story. But it’s a sweetly contrasting cast. The initial incongruity of Chloe Sevigny as Lady Susan’s scheming American confidante actually works all the more beside the pompous home counties bluster of Steven Fry. We are always in the central black widow’s web, though; Lady Susan has everyone in the palm of her velvet glove, Beckinsale every audience member.
This is a dandy and invigorating historical farce. A teasing revelation of scandal in the upper echelons of privilege. The manipulative machinations of a man-eater in Regency high society. Love & Friendship is a comedy of superior class.
★ ★ ★ ★