Love and Friendship is ostensibly about the struggles of being a woman in British high society – as one might expect out of a Jane Austen adaptation. It is entertaining in the way that talky period pieces are – cleverly constructed scenes showcasing verbal repartee too literary for most audiences and drawing the chuckles of the astute and hearing unimpaired. It is presented much in the way that Oscar Wilde plays or Shakespeare’s comedies have traditionally been presented on screen – a brusque introduction of the characters and an attempt to lay out the cat’s cradle of relationships before plot begins. While this is stylishly done with some of the cinematic lingering you might find in an indie-film, the textual exposition explaining each character’s relationship to one another gets lost as the roster of characters continues to grow. In some ways it’s a formal choice that serves the character development of its female protagonist, but I always feel more able to grasp character relationships when a film allows me to make the connection myself.
There is a palette of quirkiness in Love and Friendship that would not be out of place in a Wes Anderson movie, but as the movie settles into its chatty rhythm, that disappointingly trails off, more or less, until the end credits. Here, the familiar trope of period British high society is so much a presence, it almost becomes a character of its own in the cliché way Manhattan is said to in so many films. In fact, you might think of this as a thematic prequel to something like Downton Abbey, though it certainly suffers from the lack of a role for Maggie Smith. Society, being in it, and your status once you are there are all major themes, and provide the major motivating factors for Lady Susan, the main character, played by Kate Beckinsale with surprising and spirited crispness. Frederica, Lady Susan’s daughter (Morfydd Clark) is almost painfully sweet, and though this movie is not about their relationship per se, her youthful innocence and distress is compelling, and serves to contrast with Beckinsale’s cunning, slippery lead. The relationship between mother and daughter is clearly strained, but when it comes to this movie, allowing events to transpire off screen is significant, because we see only what Lady Susan seems to want us to see. Lady Susan’s social ambitions, however, are a matter of survival (to a degree, anyway), and the movie’s identity seems to want to heartily predicate itself on that issue. As a disreputed widow with the needs of her teenage daughter to think of, she is forced to navigate loose familial connections and rely on the kindness of genteel society. Essentially working out of a suitcase with nothing but her wits in the severe world of British blue bloods. And, what’s surely to complicate things, she certainly isn’t there to please – she’s there to get her way.
Costuming and setting aren’t flashy, but look like they are plucked from contemporary illustrations – movies dealing with the oppression of certain groups in times gone by get a lot of mileage out of period accuracy, as it often drives home how little social progress we’ve made in the intervening time. What’s interesting is that Lady Susan is not a blameless specimen of Victorian womanhood; she is horribly flawed. In fact, all of the rumors about her seem to be true, and she is nothing if not constantly lying and manipulating. As the movie progresses, there is actually less and less to redeem the machinations of Lady Susan, and the movie leans heavily on Kate Beckinsale’s likability and a dry and nuanced wit to help carry the story forward. Watching her orchestrate a soft spot in much of the cast for Fredericka entertaining, and there is certainly the pleasure of watching someone craft a complex character that makes this movie work, but we unfortunately don’t get to appreciate maybe just how complex Lady Susan’s character is until the movies final and un-Hollywood-like moments. The plot untangles itself in a way that is so foregone that it is almost siphoned completely of the irony one generally comes to expect from these kinds of complicated romantic hi-jinks, so don’t expect a flashy, clever pay off. That certainly isn’t to say the movie suffers, though. It does end somewhat bluntly, but not on an entirely unsatisfying note. It is rather a still and quietish one – something we haven’t had throughout the breathless pace of most of this movie, and it seems to speak volumes, as if to say with a smirk: Lady Susan may be all the things people say she is, but no one can say she doesn’t take care of business.