"Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen's perspective would look even worse?"
The heroine of Metropolitan (1990) asks this question of a would-be radical who calls Austen "near ridiculous from today’s point of view." Like all good rhetorical questions, the answer is obvious, and has only gotten more so over the years. One gets the sense that writer/director Whit Stillman has been itching to adapt Austen for a while, given the Austenian undercurrents—class concerns; competition between, and for, the sexes; the importance of dress and decorum—of his 1990s triptych.
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With Love & Friendship, adapted from the novella "Lady Susan," Stillman finally gets his turn to play in Austen’s dollhouse. And he makes the most of it: wry and witty, Love & Friendship is one of the funniest films of the year, a costume comedy for the ages.
The widowed Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) must flee polite society for the countryside following an indiscretion involving Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin). Desperate to marry off her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to the daffy and oblivious but well-off Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), the manipulative Susan has designs of her own on the dashing young Reginald Decourcy (Xavier Samuel). Keeping a close eye on Susan’s shenanigans is Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), Reginald’s sister and Susan’s sister-in-law.
All the while, Susan is keeping counsel with Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), an American whose British husband (Stephen Fry) has forbidden her from contacting the lady of questionable reputation. Should Mrs. Johnson fail to heed Mr. Johnson’s command, she shall be remanded to the wilds of Connecticut, a barbarous outpost in these post-colonial years.
With the exception of Sir Martin—played with admirably arch silliness by Bennett, Martin is a landowner fascinated by not only peas but also authors who can write both poetry and verse—the humor is relatively subtle. One-liners abound. For instance: "I’m sure the paying of wages would be offensive to us both," a once-wealthy woman says to her always-impoverished friend-cum-servant; or, later, "Facts are horrid things," a character says after her deceptions have been discovered following a breach in letter-reading etiquette.
These lines are quite funny, though their humor may be slightly difficult to explain sans context and without seeing them expertly delivered by Beckinsale et al. One is reminded of previous chuckle-inducers from Stillman like "Why did you use the past perfect, then?" (The Last Days of Disco, 1998) and "They’re against OTAN?" (Barcelona, 1994). You kind of have to be there to get it. As Matt Zoller Seitz put it in his review, "It's the sort of movie that fans will quote to each other to affirm membership in a secret club."
It’s a Whit Stillman sort of movie, in other words.