Wednesday, May 25, 2016

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP: Whit Stillman and Jane Austen prove a marriage made in heaven

How is it that Whit Stillman, the guy who's been giving us those dialog-heavy, manners-and-mores movies for 25 years, has only now seen fit to pair up with history's great dialog-heavy, manners-and-mores author, Jane Austen? Whatever the reason(s), the pairing has arrived at last, and audiences should consider themselves blessed. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (the only thing ordinary is that mediocre title), based on Austen's early novella, Lady Susan, which was published after her death, is, I wager, the best filmed adaptation of Austen we've had so far. (And that would include a bevy of excellent films.)

As both adapter and director, Mr. Stillman, shown at left, not only captures Austen beautifully, he fills his film with such succulent, delicious dialog that we hang on every word, relish (almost) every character and bask in scene after scene of sheer delight. Yeah, I'm piling it on. But, hell, so has Stillman. He's given us the most sheerly enjoyable movie of the year so far, one that captures its period beautifully, while ladeling out a tale of betrayal and survival in which its very smart if not very nice protagonist shows us how to win the game of societal manners by outplaying literally everyone else in view.

Stillman has, with a single exception, cast his movie to perfection, as well, starting with his star, Kate Beckinsale (shown at right, above and below), who -- if you know her via the generally execrable Underworld franchise -- has here the role of a lifetime and plays it like the champion she so clearly is. Her Lady Susan, from one vantage point, is a conniving bitch. From another, she's simply doing what she must to ensure her and her daughter's future in a society that would like nothing better than to see them both brought down.

Ms Beckinsale embodies the role with enormous intelligence and wit. There's a sharpness, a keenness to her behavior that we've seldom seen in the actress. Her earlier roles had some of this, but here, as Austen's unusual heroine, she has the opportunity to make us marvel at her smarts and her daring, her beauty and her fortitude.

The supporting players that surround the actress are well-chosen too -- the most marvelous being the dunderheaded suitor played by Tom Bennett, (shown above, right), who has one of the funniest scenes in modern movies, as a character who has only just been introduced to... peas. If sublime comic timing, together with astute and original characterization, counted for anything in the Oscar race, you might see this actor walk away with a Best Supporting statue.

As Lady Susan's struggling-not-to-be-stifled daughter, Morffyd Clark (above) makes a most engaging impression -- obedient yet unwilling to be married off to someone for whom she feels nothing.

The one performance that leave something to be desired is that of Chloë Sevigny, above. She plays the only American in the bunch, and while it's lovely to see the two stars of Stillman's The Last Days of Disco together again, Ms Sevigny (an actress I usually like very much) simply can't keep up with her British or Australian co-stars in terms of speaking her dialog "trippingly on the tongue." Granted, it has been arranged that she play an American, but, still, when she's speaking onscreen, you want to say, "Come now, Chloë: chop, chop!" But this is hardly a deal-breaker.

In the other male supporting roles, Xavier Samuel, above, makes a fine romantic lead (for several female characters, actually), while James Fleet, below, left, does a thoughtful, feet-on-the-ground job as DeCourcy père. (That's Jemma Redgrave, at right, as mère.)

The filmmaker introduces us to all these characters in the lovely, old-fashioned way of using explanatory title cards at the film's beginning -- which is both stylish and helpful. And as Lady Susan was originally an epistolary tale, Stillman appropriately offers letters, the writing of and delivery of which, keeps the plot bouncing along.

I missed only a tad's worth of dialog, which moves very quickly here, so I plan to see this one again, just as soon as it appears on Blu-ray with English subtitles, so that we get every delicious word. Meanwhile, you can view it in theaters now (it opened two weeks ago in New York and Los Angeles, as Love & Friendship goes nationwide this Friday, May 27.

Here in South Florida, you can see it in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area at the AMC Aventura Mall 24, Cinepolis Grove 15, Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema Miami Beach, Regal South Beach 18, AMC Sunset Place 24 and Gateway West. In the Palm Beach/Boca areas, it plays the Cinemark Palace 20, the Living Room Theaters, Regal's Shadowood 16, Boynton Beach 14, Movies of Delray, Cinepolis Jupiter 14, Cobb Theaters Downtown Gardens 16, and the Muvico Parisian 20 at CityPlace. Elsewhere around the country? Absolutely. Simply click here, enter your zip code and check out the local theaters that appear. (And, yes, that's the great Stephen Fry, shown at center, above.)

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