Love & Friendship


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Kate Beckinsale has made some ropey films but hers is a career she does not deserve and Love & Friendship proves it. Her portrayal of Lady Jane in this adaptation of Austen’s lesser known book of the same name is just wonderful. If there’s any justice a whole batch of quality scripts will be landing in her lap from now on.

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Sienna Miller was originally cast in Beckinsale’s place but it is hard to think anyone else could have played the part as well as her. She has essayed confident and coolly aloof before, either because she’s an enemy agent or a warrior or a mistrustful gentlewoman or a vampire, but she’s never done so with such verve or wit. 

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Austen’s heroines tend to have bite but they are also generally a bit too good to be true. I like my protagonists a little more flawed which is why I prefer Hardy and the Brontës and why Emma is my favourite Austen novel but this character is just delicious. She has more in common with Thackeray’s Becky Sharp or Dickens’ Lady Dedlock than she does with Elizabeth Bennett. She is mean and totally self serving but is also immensely likeable, at least as played by Beckinsale. Incidentally Kate Beckinsale also played Emma, aged 22 for ITV, so she has got some of the good parts before.

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Having not read the original source story I’m not sure who to credit for the characterisation because this film isn’t actually an adaptation of Austen’s book, at least not directly. In truth it is an adaptation of director Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Austen’s book. Stillman’s version, entitled Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated, tells largely the same story but crucially exorcises the anti-heroine’s comeuppance. What Stillman adds, to both book and screenplay, are some brilliant witticisms that are entirely in the spirit of Austen but, I believe, all his own. 

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To illustrate:

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“(On having received a frosty reception from host Lady Manwaring) It’s true I’ve always detested her and before her marriage I went to great lengths to prevent it but it shows an illiberal spirit to resent for long a plan which didn’t succeed.”

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and

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“(Discussing her daughter and her closest friend, who comes from Connecticut) The Americans really have shown themselves to be a nation of ingrates. Only by having children can one even begin to understand such dynamics… We bring these delightful creatures into the world, eagerly, happily, and then before long they are spying upon and judging us, rarely favourably. Having children is our fondest wish but, in doing so, we breed our acutest critics. It is a preposterous situation but entirely of our own making.”

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Lady Jane’s daughter is actually the focus of the plot as events revolve around her widowed mother’s plans to find her a suitable husband. This in itself is not an idea unfamiliar to fans of Austen but here it plays out like its The Sting. Lady Jane’s machinations are like she is playing a con and there is real pleasure in seeing her convoluted scheme progress. Integral to this is one Sir James Martin played hilariously by Tom Bennett. If anyone comes close to stealing the movie from Beckinsale it is him. 

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All of this comes at the expense of giving the audience a moving love story but it is a sacrifice worth making. This feels both typical of Austen and totally unlike any previous screen version of her work. It is simultaneously an utterly modern and uniformly traditional portrayal of her world. It is an ingenious comedy of manners that skirts close but stays comfortably the right side of parody. For all its simplicity and complexity it is an absolute triumph and quite probably the funniest film you’ll see all year. 

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Is this one for the kids?
As you would expect, Love & Friendship is rated U and at only ninety two minutes it is never a drag. I would say yes, this is a great film for children. Certainly it is considerably more sophisticated than your average kid’s film but that is a reason to take them rather than keep them away.

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The Ripley Factor:
Oh yes, Lady Jane Vernon may not be a particularly good role model and she’s not a very modern female but just like the woman who created her, she’s got what it takes. 

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