Movie Review: 'Love & Friendship' (2016)

Kate Beckinsale’s feisty performance is the valiant highlight of this tepid costume drama. “Love & Friendship” is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan.” In this chatty adaptation by director Whit Stillman, the vivacious Kate Beckinsale stars as the eponymous lead. A ruthless widow, and cunning social climber, who schemes up a marriage for herself, and her mild-mannered daughter, a task that is easier said than done.

The story is simple with dialogue that is delivered with lightning-fast elocution and dressed up in costumes that are impressively intricate. The thing that holds “Love & Friendship” back is hard to pinpoint. Its greatest issue is its sound quality. The robust reverberation of echoes that can be heard throughout its duration causes the movie to ring with a degree of hollowness.

As he did in “Damsels in Distress,” Stillman works feverishly to keep the dialogue flowing at a rate that is clearly intended to keep its audience on their heels, but nearly drowns them instead. It is a technique that brings with it ample disconcertion. Its speed opens the door for the audience to be left in the dust. Leading one to feel as though it is an attempt to disguise the script’s weaknesses, by not giving the viewer long enough to sit with what is being said, and create an informed view of it.

Despite the clip of its dialogue, “Love & Friendship” drags. It does not have a particularly deep story, and it shows. There is a certain dark humor to the insanely flamboyant villainy exhibited by Lady Susan, whose cunning and sharp, nimble tongue are not lost on those watching.

While she is a rich character, those around her fail to entice any sort of reaction. There is no one particularly sympathetic in the group, and they all fall on their swords for a character that is not particularly stirring, Lady Susan’s daughter.

The genius of Lady Susan requires a reasonable amount of reflection. The more one considers her strategy, the more ingenious it becomes. Knowing her own scandalous reputation, her daughter would likely be thrown into the same category.

By repeatedly mistreating her, and bringing about the sympathy of those around her, Susan entices their goodwill, which she uses to extinguish any ill will they might have carried towards her daughter, simply because she is her daughter.

In making it over-zealously clear, that those around her are rescuing an innocent girl from her obviously-scheming mother, Susan gives her daughter a new lease on life. Or at least, Susan’s actions can be construed that way, should one try to find a redemptive angle to her motives.

The saving grace of “Love & Friendship” is the marvelous central turn of Beckinsale, who is utterly captivating as Lady Susan. In many ways, the movie is sort of her one-woman play, and it is a testament to her screen presence that she is able to carry it off. Not many could.

With a more robust musical score and richer cinematography, “Love & Friendship” could have accomplished a grandeur it would have exponentially benefited from. There was potential with its script, the direction could not quite relay. However, one of its most significant faults exists on paper.

Unlike Austin’s similarly themed, “Sense & Sensibility” (2008’s stellar adaptation being the best), there are no likable characters to really root for in “Love & Friendship.” The belief that someone being naïve automatically relates to how good of a person they are, is well, naïve. Without a particularly likable character to hold one’s attention, there is not a lot to love about this film. Rating: 5.5/10