PARK CITY, UT: On one hand, the notion of writer/director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Damsels in Distress) doing a Jane Austen adaptation is a little jarring – after all, the closest thing he’d made to a period piece was 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, still a good couple of centuries before the Georgian era. On the other, as he joked after the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Love & Friendship, “I think our films have been accused of being set in Georgian times, all the time.” And he’s sort of right; his examinations of young Northeastern preppies and the Upper West Side enclaves from which they hail are more connected to that time than most of his contemporaries, concerned as they are with matters of class, social advancement, and familial obligation.
Stillman’s film is freely adapted from Lady Susan, a short novel that Austen wrote in the 1790s (though it wasn’t published until some eighty years later). Perhaps as a good luck charm from his earlier period piece, he casts Kate Beckinsale as the key character, a self-absorbed, self-satisfied widow on the hunt for appropriate (and appropriately wealthy) husbands for herself and her daughter, and Chloë Sevigny as her main confidant. And indeed, they have many of the best scenes, gossipy strategy sessions bursting with quotable dialogue like “A man so rich and foolish will not stay single long.”
Working off those game plans, Susan goes to work. It’s a delicious character, blissfully, willfully ignorant of her considerable flaws, as she plays passive/aggressive with family members, plays hard to get with handsome younger men, and plays everyone in her orbit off each other, to her advantage. She’s a woman with, as her sister-in-law puts it, “an uncanny understanding of men’s natures,” and it’s rather a blast to watch Beckinsale – too often stranded in dopey action movies and dopier prestige dramas – really let loose.
The only person who seems to have more fun is Stillman himself; in fact, he revealed after Saturday’s premiere, it began as a pleasure project. “I was between all these other projects I was supposed to be working on,” he explained, “and after you submit a draft, there’s always this time when you have nothing to do.” So he worked on the Austen adaptation: “This was sort of the fun, fun thing.”
That sense of fun translates; above all (and surely to the relief of those prone to resist costume drama) it’s just a very playful picture, with Stillman throwing in clever little touches like silent movie-style character intro cards and clever on-screen text to illustrate a letter-reading scene. And it’s a spry movie to boot, running barely over 90 minutes, as Stillman adopts a good, fast, almost proto-screwball style that retains (and even adds to) the various plot machinations and abundance of characters without getting bogged down in them.
It’s a treat, is the point, zippy and witty and gorgeous, and if Stillman’s relative scarcity is mildly depressing (this is only his second film since Last Days of Disco 18 years ago), at least he, like contemporaries and mid-budget warriors Spike Lee and (reportedly) Jim Jarmusch and Terry Gilliam, has found a home. “I have had a lot of trouble getting employed in the years since 1990,” he noted in his introduction, referencing his first Sundance appearance for Metropolitan, “and one of the greatest things to have happened over the last few years is Amazon Studios”; Amazon will oversee a theatrical release with Roadside Attractions before streaming Love & Friendship later this year.
But at the end of the day, Stillman is happiest to have made a film for Austen fans, and to shine a light on one of her lesser-known works. “This was a beautiful, funny novella,” he said, “and I think it was a great opportunity to bring it to a wider audience in a completed form – because she left it concluded in a way, but not truly completed, in her sense… So I think , for those who love Jane Austen and want another book in the library, this is a chance to have something else available as a film.”
Love & Friendship screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival.