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28 January 2016

Love & Friendship, based on an early Austen novella, rewrites the period drama rule book

Based on Jane Austen’s little-known early novella Lady Susan, Whit Stillman’s new film Love & Friendship is anything but a straightforward adaptation.

By Ryan Gilbey

The brilliant improvisation group Austentatious operates on the conceit that there are 647 or so unpublished Jane Austen novels in existence and that one of them might turn up at any moment in someone’s shoe, or at the bottom of a family pack of supermarket own-brand crisps. Each hour-long show, improvised from scratch based on a title suggested by the audience only seconds before, purports to be one of these lost masterworks. Past efforts have included Darcy and Hutch, I Know What You Did Last Season and Goalhanger Abbey.

It’s a delicious idea, and it feels almost as if it has come true when you’re watching Whit Stillman’s new film Love & Friendship, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last weekend. Based on Austen’s early novella Lady Susan, with which I was unfamiliar, it is anything but a straightforward adaptation. It extrapolates from that story’s epistolary structure a wealth of material and insights: Stillman literally reads between the lines as he unpicks the romantic schemes of the disingenuous widow Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale).

This isn’t a case of liberties taken – we’re not talking about anything similar to the 1997 film of Henry James’s The Wings of a Dove, which enjoyed a transfusion of explicitness at odds with its author. In the case of Love & Friendship, the match between adaptor and adaptee is exquisite and advantageous to both.

Stillman has always specialised in pointed comedies of manners that are Austenian or Jamesian in essence: Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1997) and Damsels in Distress (2012) explored love and etiquette with an archness that made them resemble period pieces in modern dress. (In 2014, he also made a promising Amazon pilot, The Cosmopolitans; more episodes are in the offing.) No wonder the dialogue and romantic imbroglios of Austen fit him so well. He’s been here the whole time in spirit.

There’s a pleasing reunion in the cast-list: Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, who plays Lady Susan’s friend Mrs Alicia Johnson, were sparky together in The Last Days of Disco. But the pleasures extend in every direction – even the one-line biographies with which each character is introduced are hilarious. I’ll be reviewing the film properly when it opens. For now, here are some predictions on which I am prepared to stake my battered old university copy of Persuasion:

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Love & Friendship will be Stillman’s biggest hit yet

“Not hard,” quipped a chum when I shared this forecast with him. It’s true that this director’s work has not in the past given James Cameron cause to fear for his title as the movie world’s foremost money-printing machine. Even so, the picture will do exceptionally well. The Austen factor will be attractive to large audiences (in a different way to the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and the source material has a satisfying aura of newness – not bad for something written in the late 18th century. Posh-frock fans will fall on the film with gratitude, like Dylan disciples clapping ears on a rarely-heard demo.

It will lead to a renewal of interest in Stillman’s films

They don’t get mentioned much any more. This should help change all that. Exhibit A: the Barbican’s forthcoming 35mm screening of The Last Days of Disco, introduced by Richard Ayoade and with Stillman attending for a Q&A session, is now sold out.

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It will make Xavier Samuel a star

The entire cast is flawless – though Tom Bennett deserves special mention for his euphoric turn as the verbose, bumbling twit hoping to marry Lady Susan’s daughter (Morfydd Clark). But it is Xavier Samuel (previously seen in the Twilight series of all things), as Lady Susan’s would-be suitor Reginald De Courcy, who is the eye-catching revelation here. He plays Reginald’s contradictory notes – his confidence and tentativeness, his bravado and his injured pride – to minimalist perfection. Great shifts in fortune and expectation are signalled with a twitch of the lips or a catch in the throat.

It will raise the bar for the genre

Love & Friendship is a handsome film, with the requisite luxurious costumes and country estates, but it isn’t a complacent one: Stillman keeps the scenes short, the pace snappy, so that beauty is seen in passing rather than lingered over. After this, other directors may be encouraged to do period pieces their way, rather than sticking to the rulebook.

It will encourage the adaptation of lesser-known works by great writers

Now’s the time to pitch that screenplay of Oscar Wilde’s shopping list.

“Love & Friendship” opens later this year.

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