There’s nothing quite like the work of beloved author Jane Austen. When it comes to adaptations of her novels, most will remember films like 1995’s “Sense and Sensibility,” which featured an outstanding cast and won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice,” which earned a few Oscar nods of its own. In fact, these being the most popular of Austen’s novels, they’ve seen numerous adaptations in the past, which makes it a rather intriguing notion when a filmmaker decides to take one of her lesser-known works and bring it to the big screen. Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Whit Stillman (“Metropolitan”) has made the bold move of attempting to stand out in this way by adapting a little known novella by Austen entitled “Lady Susan,” turning it into a film whose very title of “Love & Friendship” beckons back to those more popular works.
The film begins with the rather hasty departure of Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), a widow and lady of somewhat peculiar reputation, from the home of Lord (Lochlann O’Mearain) and Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray). She has decided to visit her sister-in-law, Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), who lives at Churchill with her husband, Charles (Justin Edwards). It just so happens that Catherine’s brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel), is visiting as well, causing great alarm with his father, Sir Reginald (James Fleet), who doesn’t want him involved with a woman of Lady Susan’s reputation. Matters only become more complicated when Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), is dismissed from school and comes to stay with them, catching the attention of one Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who is seen as something of a dolt. Amid all the various circumstances, it all comes down to what we’ve always come to expect from most of Austen’s writings, that is, simply finding which characters are the best match for each other.
When one thinks back to those classic Austen adaptations mentioned earlier, they’ll remember films in which the story unfolds at a gradual pace, one that allows the characters to be introduced naturally as the film progresses. This gives the audience a chance to get to know them and form that incredibly important attachment as they go about their role in the romantic entanglement of Austen’s narratives. Unfortunately, when it comes to Stillman’s “Love & Friendship,” this is a notion that was not given quite enough consideration.
His adaptation of “Lady Susan” begins in the most peculiar way, with a rapid listing of most of the main characters (and how they relate) that we are going to be meeting throughout the film. What this means is that you better have a pretty good memory or there’s a good chance you’re going to have quite a time trying to figure out who is who (something that you can probably tell is a little complex just from the synopsis above). Apparently Stillman thought this would suffice for character introductions, a mistake that leaves the characters undeveloped for most of the film, but even worse is that it leaves us without that attachment that would have us caring about what happens to them. It’s rather unfortunate that he decided to rob us of a more organic introduction for the characters, for some of them do seem rather interesting, but with his lazy method, we’re left with hardly knowing a thing about them.
The other effect this has on the story as a whole is that it sets a rushed pace from the very start, a pace that ends up never slowing down throughout the film’s brief 90 minutes. As mentioned earlier, the best Austen adaptations usually have a very deliberate pace in which time is taken to not only fill us in on the characters, but also to allow the story to develop in due time. As far as “Love & Friendship” goes, Stillman decided to make it as though it was a race to get to the end, not only rushing along just about every scene, but also allowing Kate Beckinsale to deliver her dialogue on rapid fire. It hardly needs to be said that this does not do any favors for the narrative, and in fact, you’ll be lucky if you can remember any individual scenes as a result.
What we’re left with is a strangely misguided attempt at bringing an obscure Austen novella to the big screen. There are certainly plenty of hints at a good Austen adaptation hidden within, including the gorgeous sets and costumes, the dry sense of humor, and the usual match-making plot, but the execution here is so heavily flawed that you have to wonder what Stillman was thinking when he was putting this together. Why would he not want to introduce the characters properly? Why does he rush the film along at such a frantic pace? Supposedly this must have worked in his mind somehow, but all it really is is a completely forgettable adaptation of a great author’s work, one that will leave you yearning for the great adaptations that have come before.
“Love & Friendship” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. The image is beautifully sharp and clear throughout the film’s entire duration, which allows the gorgeous period details in the production design and costumes to shine. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also top-notch, giving you all of the dialogue and the exquisite score in excellent quality. Overall, the film has been given the best of treatment, leaving you with a great experience in both departments.
Behind the Scenes: Love and Friendship (10 Minutes): A featurette that has the cast and crew discussing Austen and the making of the film. Also includes a fair amount of behind the scenes footage shot on set.
Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” is a strangely misguided attempt at bringing Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan” to the big screen. The film may have the same gorgeous period designs and the familiar plotting of other Austen adaptations, but with its lazy character introductions and rushed pace, there’s practically nothing here to engage the viewer, turning this into a film that is destined to be forgotten among the lower tiers of projects based on the beloved author's works.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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