Love & Friendship opens with some non-traditional portrait cards for its cast of characters. The actors all appear in the opening titles, but then director Stillman breaks out introductions to the characters. Along with some narration. There’s some narration early on, which goes away almost immediately. Because narration might show a little too much of the film’s hand and Stillman wants to play it real close.
Everyone’s character gets an introduction card–done with portrait effect nodding to silent film techniques–except Kate Beckinsale. She’s not just the lead, she’s the object of everyone’s attention, which almost seems like the same thing as the film’s subject. But not so. With another twenty minutes or so, maybe Stillman could’ve made Beckinsale the film’s subject, but Love & Friendship runs a quick ninety-four minutes. There’s only so much he can do and wants to do. Beckinsale’s character might be deserving of a character study, but Stillman’s making a comedy and a light one. So object of attention she remains.
Though Stillman does obfuscate just enough to keep Beckinsale unknowable. Though no one in Love & Friendship is exactly knowable. Most character development comes out in characters discussing other ones, revealing bits and pieces of gossip and backstory, which informs how discussed characters play out, but there’s always a wink. Chloë Sevigny’s role in the film is mostly just to be knowing. She’s the wink at the audience.
Stillman takes his time introducing characters and storylines. When the film opens, Beckinsale and sidekick Kelly Campbell are just arriving to mooch off some of Beckinsale’s dead husband’s relations. It’s set in eighteenth century English society, but a lot of the film’s humor relates to just how brazen Beckinsale can be. She’s got a title and no money. She’s got a daughter and no husband. She also provokes a lot of rumor and gossip, which the audience gets in on before Beckinsale even shows up in the film. Stillman lays the groundwork for introducing her–as sensationally as possible given the realities of the setting–but also for what’s going to come in the second and third acts. He doesn’t foreshadow. He goes out of his way to avoid it, instead relying on Richard Van Oosterhout’s precise photography, Benjamin Esdraffo’s score, and Sophie Corra’s awesome editing to package each scene in the film as a separate moment. The actors give the film a continuous tempo, not Stillman’s script. Stillman’s script is about the smiles, the laughs, the intrigue, but he relies on the actors to keep the characters going.
It’s important because he’s introducing new, important ones throughout. Even if they got a portrait card in the first act, a lot goes on in Love & Friendship and Stillman uses the device for charm and humor more than establishing the ground situation. The ground situation comes out in the dialogue, the actors deliver the dialogue. Stillman directs to emphasize each exchange. Occasionally with some eclectic composition choices, always with perfectly timed ones. Again, Corra’s editing is essential to the film’s success.
The acting is all great. Beckinsale holds it all together. With everyone talking about nothing except her character, she’s always the focus, even if she’s not in the scene. So when she does come back onscreen, she doesn’t just have to do the scene, she’s also got to bridge her absence and the discussed character or plot development. Beckinsale, Stillman, and Corra get it right every time.
Xavier Samuel is good as Beckinsale’s too young suitor, Emma Greenwell is great as his disapproving sister. Morfydd Clark is good as Beckinsale’s daughter, who should be looking for a suitor of her own. The relationship with Beckinsale and Clark ought to forecast where Love & Friendship is going to end up, but it doesn’t. Stillman doesn’t want any peeking.
Tom Bennett is hilarious as Clark’s suitor, a rich buffoon. Justin Edwards is quietly excellent as Greenwell’s husband.
Sevigny’s perfect in her bemusement.
Love & Friendship is a delightful, thoughtful, ambitious, beauteous, little, grandiose picture.
Directed by Whit Stillman; screenplay by Stillman, based on a novella by Jane Austen; director of photography, Richard Van Oosterhout; edited by Sophie Corra; music by Benjamin Esdraffo; produced by Lauranne Bourrachot, Katie Holly, and Stillman; released by Amazon Studios.
Starring Kate Beckinsale (Lady Susan Vernon), Chloë Sevigny (Alicia Johnson), Xavier Samuel (Reginald DeCourcy), Emma Greenwell (Catherine Vernon), Morfydd Clark (Frederica Vernon), Tom Bennett (Sir James Martin), Kelly Campbell (Mrs Cross), Justin Edwards (Charles Vernon), James Fleet (Sir Reginald DeCourcy), Jemma Redgrave (Lady DeCourcy), Jenn Murray (Lady Lucy Manwaring), and Stephen Fry (Mr. Johnson).