Whit Stillman is a gifted director with a knack for creating entertaining films about gregarious people who always have something on their minds and aren't afraid to talk about it. In Metropolitan (1990), he fashioned an engaging drama about some rich and clever socialites in Manhattan; in Barcelona (1994), he shifted gears with a drama about the values of some Americans in Spain during the last decade of the Cold War; in The Last Days of Disco (1998), he concocted a romantic comedy set in 1980s Manhattan with characters talking about dating, disco, sex, work, play, sanity, ethics, and more; and in Damsels in Distress (2012) he introduced us to four female college students who express their righteous indignation, moral fervor, and protest against "cool people."
Stillman demonstrates the same fascination with talking in his sassy, witty, and wonderful screen adaptation of Lady Susan, Jane Austen's epistolary novel published posthumously in 1871. The English novelist, who is still very popular today, excelled in social satire. The sharp edges of her humor are evident in this drama which abounds with idiosyncratic characters caught up in the deceits, fantasies, desires, gossip, and ridicule of an audacious widow.
Recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is a scheming, sophisticated, and self-absorbed beauty who, with "no money and no husband," arrives for an extended visit with her in-laws — Mr. Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell) who live on a luxurious countryside estate called Churchhill. Prior to her arrival, there are rumors about her seduction of men. Charles seems quite enchanted with Lady Susan but his wife wonders whether she might be aligned with "the serpent in Eden's garden."
In a series of long walks on the estate with Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), Catherine's handsome and eligible younger brother, Lady Susan charms and impresses him with her wide-ranging intelligence and wisdom. Her plans of marrying him and wiping away her poverty are waylaid by the arrival of her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) who has run away from school and is depressed about her future. She sinks even deeper into anxiety when Lady Susan insists that she wed Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), an eligible suitor with plenty of money. But he is a socially awkward buffoon who has trouble understanding the proper pronunciation of Churchill, thinks there are 12 commandments, and gives a salutary speech at a dinner party about peas.
Throughout her adventures in the manipulation and shocking of this small circle of wealthy people, Lady Susan shares her feelings and experiences with Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), an American who is a good listener and a smart woman in her own right. She comes up with an idea that really clicks with her best friend. Lady Susan is not a lovable heroine: she is caught up her quest for survival and her ego manifests itself in raw grasping. In addition, she is enslaved to the erotic fantasies of love and longing.
Whit Stillman draws out a sensational performance from Kate Beckinsale that shimmers with a special blend of verve, wit, and charm. She moves elegantly through a world of grand estates, fields of green, country gardens and carriages. Benjamin Esdraffo's piano-and-strings musical score is perfectly in sync with the lavish settings and the rituals of the aristocratic lords and ladies. Love & Friendship is a sparkling triumph of visual and dramatic craft that makes the most out of Jane Austen's literary genius and writer-director Whit Stillman's delight in those who are great talkers.