“Love & Friendship”
Directed by Whit Stillman
Ah, words. Glorious words. After seeing a few LOUD summer movies, it’s so nice to experience a film that depends almost solely on language…and an awreness that words MATTER. Beautiful, ironic, witty, elegant words…spoken by beautiful, ironic, witty, elegant actors in incredibly stunning locales. In other words, a film adaptation of Jane Austen.
This is much more challenging than other Austen film offerings. The plot is not simple and requires sharp focus on what’s NOT spoken, as opposed to what is. Austen (channeled by Stillman) wrote irony and sarcasm as comedy better than most. She also completely understood the rules and manners of her society and time, which allowed her to write a protagonist whose every phrase takes delicious advantage of those morays.
Stillman’s direction shows both an understanding of the writing and of our ability (or disability) to follow the story, wrapped as it is in misdirected prose. He uses a Cliff’s Notes trick to keep us straight, which I found hilarious and useful. And thanks to his understanding of the language, there are almost no extraneous moments. As a result, the film flies by.
The cast is uniformly superb, but it is our leads that make this thing go. Beckinsale is gorgeous and in complete control of the text. Watching her brain at work is kinda magical. Morfydd Clark is stunning and perfectly cast as Beckinsale’s daughter. The rest of the cast is perfectly matched and well-rounded. Justin Vernon is hilarious as the earnest and slightly pompous head of the Churchill estate, where most of the action occurs. But, Tom Bennett as the foppish Sir James Martin (part Hugh Grant, part Tom Hulce’s ‘Mozart’), has a ninety-second monologue that is as funny as anything I’ve seen this year. I would LOVE to see all the takes…and my guess is they went with the take where everyone else in the room held it together. It really is worth the price of a ticket all by itself.
Speaking of Mozart, the soundtrack, which is credited to Benjamin Esdraffo, is really a collection of chamber, harpsichords and harp music. While it certainly fits the language, it is the only sleepy aspect of the film and I found myself wishing Stillman had been a touch more adventurous in what he requested from his composer.
This is a film to savor. It’s not perfect, and if you see it in a theater that keeps the volume low, you might miss quite a bit. But if you love language, incredibly well chosen language, as much as I do, then you’ll REALLY enjoy this film as much as I did.