Love & Friendship Review
Just when you thought there were no more Jane Austen stories to be filmed, along comes a new one; though, to be pedantic, the title has been borrowed from another early Austen piece, while the plot is from Lady Susan, a kind of precursor to Sense and Sensibility. Writer/director Whit Stillman - previously best know for Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco (also starring Kate Beckinale and Chloe Sevigny) - has concocted a meringue of a film which purports to be a romantic comedy set in the early 18th century, but I am at a loss to detect either comedy or romance.
Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is a scheming, manipulative and irresistible woman of no fortune, with a daughter she is keen to marry off. In the absence of both husband (dead) and money (whereabouts unknown), she flits from country house to country house, causing trouble wherever she goes. She doesn't especially like men, but they like her very much, and she takes pleasure in twisting them around her little finger. In the circumstances, her lack of female friends is unsurprising, though she has one loyal confidante, Mrs Johnson (Sevigny), who has been unwise enough to marry Stephen Fry.
As for the plot, well, let's just say that it involves a great deal of not very much, and we end up where novels of that period always end, at a wedding. Whether this counts as a satisfactory conclusion is a matter of opinion.
It is disconcerting to go to see a film which has been universally praised only to discover that it is - to be polite - less than wonderful. To be brutally honest, it's as if Woody Allen had taken it upon himself to set his latest film in Austenland circa 1800. And that's not a compliment.
There is so much to dislike about this film, including the annoying introduction of the principal (and lesser) characters at the beginning of the film, which is both charmless and unhelpful. Another irritating habit (possibly cribbed from Woody Allen) is to show a scene, followed by another scene in which a character tells someone else what just happened in the previous scene. Are we really that stupid?
The main crime committed by the director, however, is the clunky nature of the direction. Virtually every scene consists of either two characters sitting and talking to each other or two characters walking and talking to each other. The lack of imagination in staging scenes or locating the camera is quite staggering. As for the editing, it feels as it was done with a blunt trowel.
Furthermore (or as a result), the characters feel two-dimensional and impossible to care about. Lady Susan dominates the whole film, but even she has only hidden shallows. As for the rest, they are a collection of cliches and stereotypes. Sir James Martin is a silly ass, a strange combination of David Brent and George in Blackadder Goes Forth. There's an offensively hackneyed hysterical wife, a young man who looks like the love child of Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, and Stephen Fry once more revealing why he should never (ever) be given a screen role involving actual acting.
There's no doubt that this film is perfectly targeted at a certain middle class and middlebrow audience. I watched the film with someone who laughed obediently every time anything resembling humour occurred. How nice to be so easily pleased. Sadly, I sat through the whole with a sinking feeling of having been misled by the avalanche of critical enthusiasm with which the film has been greeted.
Maybe I am a lone voice of dissent, and everyone else loves it. But for what it's worth, I strongly urge you to shun this film with the same energy with which mothers of eligible young men shunned Lady Susan.