|'James Martin is a deus ex stupida who pines after conversations regarding topics he does not understand (‘advanced agricultural methods’) and concepts he cannot quite grasp (peas).'|
Featuring more walking in corridors than The West Wing and a character who is at least as much David Brent as he is Austen, Love & Friendship is not your typical English Lit adaptation. Director Whit Stillman introduces his shtick early; this is a knowing enough nod to the ridiculous formality of Austen that each character gets a still portrait introduction with a descriptive byline (‘her unintended’). The difficulty in that execution comes from the fact that this isn’t a parody or a pastiche; it’s a loving modern twist on a Classic (arguably: the Classics), it’s a new spin that knows how silly the source can be, but loves it still and revels in it.
As such, though this tells a nice story about a cunning, socially mobile English lady (Kate Beckinsale, ‘the greatest flirt in all of England’), it is also comfortably in the Comedy genre. As soon as James Martin (Tom Bennett) arrives on screen, Love & Friendship revels in the laughs as much as it does the fairly thin story. Indeed, Martin, towards the finale, gets to reveal the crux of Lady Susan’s (Beckinsale) plan, though of course he is still none the wiser. As Lady Susan herself puts it whilst Martin is wooing her daughter: ‘he has offered you the one thing of value he has to give… his income’.
In the wrong hands, the manners and affectations, the occasional glibness at just how well the film skewers the Costume Drama, could come across as irritating. Instead, Stillman errs on the right side of charming. Equally, though the film is that, it should not be mistaken for a soft fluffy story of taking tea in dining rooms. Lady Susan has real bite and the conclusion shows that, though the plot hints she will go whichever way the wind blows (as long as it is blowing towards well appointed rooms), there is a ruthlessness to her and her aims. Again, that Stillman manages to make Lady Susan sympathetic (to a degree) is no insignificant achievement for his Drama.
Where Lady Susan is a perfect character in Beckinsale’s hands, Martin fares less well in Stillman’s in particular. The director has always been noted as a talented shepherd of female characters, but with the male character of Martin, he stumbles. Martin is, overtly, the court jester. His stupidity enables Lady Susan, drives the plot and draws out comic relief whenever the script needs it. He is a deus ex stupida who pines after conversations regarding topics he does not understand (‘advanced agricultural methods’) and concepts he cannot quite grasp (peas). But he’s also overused, a touch too irritating and probably more than a touch too convenient.
Ultimately though there is enough here when Martin is off screen to see Love & Friendship through. Beckinsale is waspishly radiant, Chloë Sevigny provides a strong (if fairly one dimensional) foil and the brief runtime is easily filled with the stinging piques of the script and the flourishes of modern invention, matched to the Austen subject matter.