"Downward mobility" was one of many fears that the protagonists in Whit Stillman's 1990 directorial debut Metropolitan were conversing about, and here in his latest film, Love & Friendship (2016), "downward mobility" is even more plausible. Prior to Love & Friendship, Stillman's core milieu was populated by WASPs, preps, and yuppies as they struggled to make sense of their place in the surrounding world. Particularly in Metropolitan, and progressively less so in Barcelona (1994) and beyond, Stillman's young protagonists are representative of a sphere of intelligentsia that isolates them from others, but it's all a facade. The same can be said of Love & Friendship, a film that is largely about keeping up appearances. All of this is said to illustrate one key aspect of Love & Friendship: it's not foreign territory for Whit Stillman. In fact, he's finally working within the time period that the young members of the "UHB" (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie) in Metropolitan would have potentially flourished within. That the experience of being in this Jane Austen world with Stillman's original touch is not more satisfying is troubling.
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is the recently widowed mother of Frederica (Morfydd Clark), an attractive teenage girl who is engaged to a silly man (described as "a rattle") named James Martin (Tom Bennett). In an effort to preserve her status in society and better herself (and potentially her daughter as well), Lady Susan seeks shelter at her late husband's brother's estate in Churchill. The Vernons are welcoming people, and the "devastatingly handsome" Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) has been spending a considerable amount of time with the Vernons, as his sister is married to Lady Susan's brother-in-law. Naturally, the newly single Lady Susan is bound to become involved with this young man, but her schemes go deeper than the surface would lead one to believe. Her friendship with Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) provides the most insight into Lady Susan's true intentions, and they are not always of the most virtuous manner.
It's not necessarily a problem that the family tree and relations – both by blood and friendship – are introduced quickly, but it does provide a bit to keep up with right from the start. Cleverly, each of the characters are introduced holding a particular expression with an iris shot highlighting them. Below each character's name, a quick phrase that expresses who they are is found (many are exceedingly humorous). Though it is not as true for a character like Lady Susan or Reginald DeCourcy, these brief phrases are in some ways all that we have to grasp who the characters are. As with Stillman's previous work, Love & Friendship is a dialogue driven film following gifted conversationalists, but the dialogue is generally driving along plot rather than exposing character. Yes, these were times of restraint in social settings in the 1700s, but the drama does not benefit from Stillman's desire to have characters with unrestrained tongues.
Serving as a clear exception to this is James Martin, as he is neither a skilled conversationalist, nor is he lost in the thicket of the moving plot. His inability to fit in with others in this generally repressed and refined society is hilarious, and in the most uncomfortable manner. Stillman's use of long takes from a distance render James Martin even more awkward as we observe him move about uneasily as he makes a buffoon of himself while in the presence of anyone and everyone. Tom Bennett's portrayal of James Martin brings life to the screen that is often lacking, and his lines (though simple and utterly moronic at times) are far funnier than they should be.
Supporting the rigid lives of those in the eighteenth century is the set decoration, costume design, and hair and makeup – which are accented by selections of Handel and Mozart that complete the mise-en-scène. There are some nice shots of people looking through windows with uneven glass that distorts what is being seen from their perspective, but there isn't a sense of the surrounding society that these characters are a part of. It's almost as if the only aspect of the period piece that has been fully embraced is the language, as there's no extra attention paid to the costuming or the locations – this is not a painterly film... Perhaps Love & Friendship's rejection of the traditional romanticization of the aesthetic pleasures of the 18th century (as seen in countless other films set during this time period) makes it even more literary than other films set in or adapted from works set in the era. All the pleasure in Stillman's film is derived from dialogue and the performances providing it.
Whit Stillman's films are not that of cinematic excesses and flourishes, but rather of the spoken word. Though this film has many wonderful lines and characters, the narrative result is uneven as the dialogue convolutes the plot whilst delivering it. Still, Love & Friendship is a smart film that doesn't have to provide much more than a conclusion that is satisfactory – which it is, though it may be rushed. Lacking narrative room to breathe, one wishes that it could take more of its time to establish the time and place, but it's still a joy to be told about it instead.
My rating: 3.5/5