Love & Friendship has the uncanny ability to have its jokes linger in the air for a few seconds before setting in, undoubtedly eliciting uproarious laughter and a few dropping jaws. It’s exceedingly wry, so much so that you might laugh over the next lines to come, or not even realize what you’re hearing until too late.
And that’s all great, as this Walt Stillman period comedy proves exceptionally winning and hilarious, all of which is carried along by a marvelous performance by Kate Beckinsale.
Adapted by n unfinished work by Jane Austen, Love & Friendship follows the manipulative Lady Susan Vernon across the 1790s English countryside as she looks to settle affairs of her late husband while securing a new partner for herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), genuine love and meddling outsiders be damned.
Be mocked too. And not only by Lady Susan, though she herself is full of quick barbs and slyly slaying witticisms, like an 18th century cast member of Veep. No, Stillman too looks to undermine everyone in this world too, as the length cast of characters are all introduced with captions, explaining that this person is particularly cocky or another lacks a sense of a humour or another is simply a mess. Indeed, one of the characters we first meet runs outside screaming hysteria as the thought of her husband having an affair.
Love & Friendship is bonkers, but so sincere in its execution, and so careful to live within its established confines. The introduction of one character in particular, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) is a side-splitting downward spiral of embarrassment, as this loquacious idiot can’t seem to shut up and say anything that isn’t awkward, all while sporting a goofy smile as Susan, and the audience, look on in horror.
A savvy comedy of manners, Love & Friendship rests on Beckinsale, and it’s a credit to her as well as the writing that she becomes someone we root for, however crafty and loathsome her actions are. Even her closest friend, a mocked American Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) isn’t immune from the wills and wiles of Susan. But we cheer on in part because she is surrounded by morons and those easily manipulated, but it’s also because however cagey, why shouldn’t Lady Susan have her way? In a culture dominated by men, let’s get behind a woman smarter than most, a funnier than all.