Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) has recently been widowed, which leaves a woman in her place in society rather vulnerable, as without a husband she is stuck for an income. This leaves her reliant on finding someone else, or perhaps someone for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), as a source for keeping herself in the style to which she has become accustomed, though this is easier said than done. Nevertheless, she has a plan, so leaves her husband's relatives behind at their country estate - to head for an alternative country estate, Churchill, where the DeCourcys live, Catherine (Emma Greenwell) being her sister-in-law there, and who has a brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel) who is more than eligible...
Jane Austen is often regarded as the darling of the middle classes for her place in literary history, though the films and television series based on her writings have proved to be popular across all sorts of class and indeed national divides, so much so that it seemed there was very little from her canon left to adapt. This meant that Love & Friendship was hardly known outside of her aficionados' experience, so when American filmmaker Whit Stillman took to crafting his own version many audiences could come to it fresh, albeit with the preconceptions of their past with watching Austen on the screens large and small, so they would have some idea of what to expect, and in that they would possibly not be too surprised.
What might have been a pleasant revelation was how funny Stillman made the material, it was not a ripsnorting knee-slapper by any means, but it did exhibit his usual sharp wit when it came to observing social mores and behaviour which he had demonstrated across the course of too few films in his career that apparently was more often kept trying to get deals off the ground than it was actually shooting the films themselves, not a dilemma that was unique to him, but one which blighted his endeavours more than many in light of his obvious ability. If you were not interested in Austen in the first place, however, this was not going to change your mind and you would be better off not trying with it.
On the other hand, if you liked the world she dreamt up, or commented on more accurately, then you could well appreciate this director taking another step back and commenting on Austen and her habits; Love & Friendship wasn't a spoof exactly, but we were aware of how ridiculous these people were in comparison to our own social customs, which would in turn have us turn that spotlight on ourselves to wonder if we were any better, or had moved on as far as we thought we had. There was no breaking of the fourth wall or anything like that, yet these characters with their exacting speech patterns were ripe for sending up, which did tend to lose the more sincere scenes of emotion amidst the somewhat arch nature of Stillman's observations, which as often threatened to be patronising.
What staved that off were a clutch of excellent performances which took the material by the scruff of the neck and shook as much humour and, if necessary, sadness from the situations as they possibly could. Beckinsale demonstrated a heretofore unexpected talent for extremely witty comedy, she wasn't the first choice for Lady Susan but the production must have been delighted at how terrifically she inhabited her role as the manipulator who can fall behind her own standards of getting others to play by her rules, even if they are not aware of it. The characters were introduced over the course of the opening couple of minutes, complete with captions, which may have been too much information to take in at once, and indeed the dialogue took a little while to attune to, but if you found yourself cottoning on then you would have no trouble discerning the jokes, which were funnier than those of, say, a Shakespeare comedy. Really, it was the dialogue and its interpretation that made the entertainment here. Music by Benjamin Esdraffo.