Thursday, October 27, 2016

Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)

Fast & furious

I remember one night picking up a copy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice--waded unenthusiastically through the pages wondering what was the author's appeal, why anyone would care about the machinations and intricacies of 18th century English society. Then somehow somewhere along the way--I think about the time of Darcy's spectacularly wrongheaded proposal to Elizabeth--I got hooked; finished the book some time in the early morning. That Austen, she moves fast when the mood hits you.

Never mind the surprise at learning that Whit Stillman is a superb fit for the writer; if anyone bothered to look (myself included) we might have noticed the filmmaker's longstanding admiration for the writer,* both author and filmmaker's brittle sense of humor, their always precise description of society's labyrinthine clockwork. Superb fit? Inevitable, when seen through 20/20 hindsight.

Stillman's latest film Love & Friendship hits the ground running literally as Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) races out of one mansion to catch a coach to another. Lady Susan (title of the source novel*) is what one character describes as 'the most accomplished flirt in all of England' and what we nowadays might more bluntly call a 'sexual predator.' She's pursued one man after another (or rather persuaded them to pursue her), wrecked marriages, pulled apart households; only fitting that our first sight of her is a hasty transition between two such households.

I'm always on the lookout for interesting ways to adapt period literature, to translate sensibilities in time and pacing at variance with our own to the big screen; Stillman in an interview conducted in Rotterdam confided that his approach was inspired by Michael Caine and Steve Martin's hurly-burly-with-precision Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) which sounds plenty interesting (Stillman might have also drawn from the original, David Niven and Marlon Brando's 1964 Bedtime Stories, which I prefer somewhat--more sophistication, less slapstick).

Whatever the stimulus the end result is a delectable lightly toasted meringue, frothily whipped faintly sweet with crisped crust and creamy interior; in other words enormous fun even if you aren't fond of the (somewhat) tonguetwisting mindbending diction of the period.

Anna Rackard and Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh dutifully reproduce setting and costumes (well more than dutifully probably; always thought the characters in Stillman's films are impeccably dressed and wander through handsome surroundings). Richard Von Oosterhout captures the bright colors of period clothes and decor (not to mention the earthy greenness of peas) while under the silvery light of overcast English weather. Sophie Corra cuts wittily without losing the feel and length of Austen's dialogue (as edited by Stillman).

The cast is fine, but to pick out some standouts: Tom Bennett as the dim James Martin, putative fiance to Susan's daughter, is Stillman's happy invention and the film's funniest running gag; every time he makes an entrance you lean forward, hoping to catch his latest thickheadedness "Churchill? That’s how you say it? All together that way? Churchill! That explains a great deal. I had heard ‘church’ and ‘hill’ but I couldn’t find either. All I saw was this big house." Morfydd Clark as Frederica, Susan's daughter, looks every bit like the excess baggage Susan considers her to be at first, but evolves to become a worthy adversary to (and almost as clever a manipulator as) her mother. Stephen Fry has a handful of brief scenes involving letters and drawing rooms and makes full use of the little screen time he's got.

Too much to take in? No worries--Stillman at film's beginning provides a quick character's guide complete with titles to introduce the large cast--and even the use of this device (the cutting, the portraitlike poses) gives Whitman a chance to show off his acerbic Austenlike wit.

Chloe Sevigny as Susan's best friend Alicia Johnson feels problematic at first--in the midst of all the impeccable accents her New York drawl sticks out--but she's deftly explained away as a result of one of Mr. Johnson's business ventures in the New World, and her presence gives Stillman the opportunity to needle his native country: when told that Alicia (should she continue seeing her friend) might be exiled to Connecticut for the duration of her lifespan, Susan gasps: "you could be scalped!"

Kate Beckinsale is superb as Susan of course--smart sexy unscrupulous, ravishing in her elaborate hats and deep decolletages and towering cumulonimbus hair, but more interesting than even her performance is the way perception of her character seems to have changed over the years. Where in Austen's time she was seen as a charming monster of an anti-hero nowadays we might view her as a strong-willed protofeminist, sure of what she wants and how she wants to get it, and unwilling to give quarter to anyone or anything except on her own terms.

Is this the best adaptation of Austen I've seen? Don't know; still prefer Amy Heckerling's Clueless, which transposed Austen to the brighter, shallower, more irrepressible milieu of Beverly Hills, 90210--where the writer's observations about society and human interaction still sting, and her convolutedly stylized diction translates readily (and brilliantly) into higher functioning teenspeak. Still, this one may prove to be one of my favorite recent translations of Austen to the big screen.

*(Initially hated (disliked Northanger Abbey as a Harvard freshman) eventually loved (changed his mind with Sense and Sensibility a few years later); Stillman has since written a novel retelling Lady Susan in the voice of a character made up for the occasion)

**(Actually the provenance is a bit confusing: the story is from Lady Susan but the title is from an even earlier parody she wrote, both unpublished)

First published in Businessworld 10.20.16

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