Whit Stillman’s “Love and Friendship,” an adaptation of an early Jane Austen novel, is the film he was born to make. Although this is the first of his projects to be set in the past, “Love and Friendship” distills the elements that run throughout his work.
Crisp, hyperverbal dialogue, forwarding a plot of social machinations — these are hallmarks of both Austen and Stillman, and it is a match made in heaven. This is how you modernize a classic. Baz Lurhman, take note.
It is not through anachronistic modern music or other tricks that Stillman “updates” a period piece. From his earlier films, such as “Metropolitan” and “The Last Days of Disco,” he has always created a world that is recognizable and completely idiosyncratic. This is a perfectly created period film that is nevertheless entirely fresh.
The performances are realistic, yet the effect is hilarious. There is the perfect note of self-awareness, created through such devices as deftly deployed onscreen writing, introducing and describing each character in a manner that emphasizes the relationship between the novel it is based on and the film we’re watching.
Above all, “Love and Friendship” is laugh-out-loud funny. As the scheming Lady Susan, Kate Beckinsale is so utterly committed to her character’s ignoble motivations that it is delightful to follow her self-involved schemes, even when most of them are carried out directly against her own daughter, Frederica.
The story finds Lady Susan, a gorgeous, penniless widow and mother, eking out an existence as a permanent houseguest as she attempts to secure husbands for herself and her daughter. A marvelous cast of friends and family variously hinder and assist her in these goals. Chloe Sevigny is her closest friend and chief enabler, the only person, other than Lady Susan herself, capable of subscribing entirely to Susan’s preposterously self-centered worldview.
Most women are decidedly less amenable to Susan’s plans, and most men are susceptible to them. Of the entire cast, by far the most susceptible, and the most unforgettable, is Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a wealthy bachelor destined to marry either Lady Susan or Frederica and a delightfully moronic character. Whether capering up and down, clapping like a 5-year-old — at a ball — or expressing surprise at experiencing peas for the first time, Bennett’s performance is the most broadly comedic in a film that gets lots of laughs from a more subtle, sardonic effect. It all works together perfectly.
Whit Stillman’s last film, “Damsels in Distress,” was a clunker that had college girls trying to act like heroines from just this kind of story, and the concept failed to deliver. “Love and Friendship” seems to have taken some of the ideas back to the drawing board, and has recognizable contemporary feelings in a period setting.
When people think of period films as boring, it’s because they aren’t like this one. Through some powerful alchemy of wit, intelligence, humor and dialogue, Stillman has built upon the inherent commonalities between his sensibilities and Austen’s, and made a fresh product almost greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s not the corsets and hats that place some films in the past, and “Love and Friendship” is a timeless, hilarious romantic comedy that could happen any time, but just happens to be set in a time period that only serves to heighten its relevance and increase the pleasure of watching it.
“Love and Friendship” is now playing at the Crescent Theater, Carmike Jubilee Square 12 and Carmike Wharf.