Jul 1, 2016 Film & TV
Kate Beckinsale finally shows some acting chops in an anti-heroine role that fits her like a glove.
If anyone had ever bet me a thousand dollars that I could go a lifetime without using the words, “How splendid that they cast Kate Beckinsale”, I would now be a thousand dollars poorer. The role: Lady Susan, manipulative schemer and supreme flirt, arch-nemesis of male pride, and the first great creation of the young writer known in her lifetime only as “A Lady”. Today, we know her better as Jane Austen.
It is astonishing, when you consider the 13,000 existing adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, that no one has previously thought to bring Austen’s sparkling early novella Lady Susan to the screen. (An untouched Austen property? How was this kept secret from the BBC? Does Hollywood not like making money?) It is less astonishing that it should be Whit Stillman who finally got around to making this film — a film which, once you’ve seen it, seems somehow both very fresh and very old, as though the pleasures it offers had always been there, waiting for you to get around to experiencing them.
Love & Friendship — the title is clearly intended to sound more Austen-like than Lady Susan, though the lack of alliteration renders it rather flavourless and generic — is in one sense a major departure for Stillman, whose four previous films have all been about lovelorn contemporary Americans. In a deeper sense, he has always been making films about the courtship behaviour of rigidly stratified social elites, and they have always been period comedies, composed with a slightly exaggerated eye for how people dressed and behaved in a very specific time and place. You can imagine a battered Jane Austen paperback in his hip pocket while he was shooting any of his films, not just this one.
Stillman employs a few cute devices to vary the usual Regency-era visual clichés. (Notably, faux-serious on-screen titles to introduce cast members, and text-messaging-style titles for the letters various characters write each other). But for the most part the pleasures here are classical: Regency gowns, ballroom scenes, stiletto-sharp dialogue, intricate curlicues of story, good actors having a great time with chewy roles. The large cast has no weak link, but two performances stand out.
Tom Bennett plays Sir James Martin, who is cheerful, rich and a very great idiot. Bennett makes him something far larger and stranger than this description suggests. He is present in only a handful of scenes, but in those scenes he owns the screen so utterly that it almost unbalances the film. You won’t find a better bit of off-the-wall full-body comic characterisation.
And how splendid that they cast Kate Beckinsale! She has been a low-watt plastic presence in films ranging from Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing to the Underworld movies, but it turns out that Lady Susan’s combination of poise, strategic sweetness and venom fits her like a glove. Stillman is shooting for a flavour of Jane Austen we haven’t met before: high-class Regency satirical-romantic comedy, yes, but now centred on an all-conquering, gotta-hate-her, gotta-love-her anti-heroine. So the enterprise rests very much on Beckinsale’s shoulders. She carries it off as though she’s been waiting for a role like this her whole career. Perhaps she has.
Love & Friendship is in New Zealand cinemas from 7 July.