"Facts are horrid things," snipes Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) during a pivotal moment late in Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman's brisk romantic comedy about the art of long-game manipulation. As the key communicator of casual falsehoods and provocations, she quite literally can't handle the truth. Being a charming, witty, flirtatious, ambitious and "brilliant creature," one might say she has no need for it in the first place.
Set in the prickly social circles of high society 19th century England, the film keeps pace with its widowed lead character as she causes controlled chaos in the hearts and minds of family, friends and those lads foolish enough to fall in love with her. Susan's meddling may seem like sport at first, but it has an underlining purpose of securing financial stability and social standing. When her teenage daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) questions these motivations, Susan quips, "we don't live, we visit." Securing permanent residence is essential.
Love & Friendship gleefully sprints right out of the gate. Lady Susan flees scandal at a country estate owned by Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin), escaping to her family-owned country abode in order to lay low. There she meets young Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), the brother of her disapproving sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwall), and finds another opportunity to paw at the heartstrings of someone new. Meanwhile, Frederica's identity crisis complicates matters for everyone, most notably Susan.
Stillman adapts Jane Austen's epistolary novel Lady Susan with a flair for awkward, cutting dalliances that speak to the hypocritical correlation between wealth and happiness, not to mention love and friendship. Witty dialogue sequences are prolonged by long strolls through pristine countryside, giving the characters ample time to confess (and doth protest) too much. Emotion is a valuable currency, something not to be spent on the wrong person.
The film's playful aesthetic operates at high speed from the very beginning. Direct address portraits of each character include name, title and description, introducing a beehive of players that are all intertwined (and in some cases related). Words unload out of characters' mouths in furious succession, yet these people rarely speak over each other (those polite Brits). Proclamations of love and frantic matters of the heart are expressed openly. One would be hard-pressed to decide which was less productive. This is smoke and mirrors at its finest.
At the center of it all, Lady Susan acts as the referee to her own mind games. The players are often unaware of their participation, drawn into a spider's web of ego and doubt and left to anguish once their folly is revealed. It seems only the dense suitor Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), whose stupidity is rivaled by his charm, maintains a sincere level of happiness throughout. Introduced as "a bit of a rattle," he digs himself into more than one conversational hole only to get right back up and try again. Ignorance and bliss.
Love & Friendship, which opens Friday, May 20, marks Stillman's reunion with Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny (playing Susan's American compatriot), whom he directed in The Last Days of Disco way back in 1998. This latest effort does feel like a culmination of sorts; by setting the film in an age where family name and reputation are paramount, the director's long-gestating themes of restlessness nestle under the façade of formality to wreak necessary havoc.
Lady Susan's effervescent ability to craft a delusional narrative, one that hides her own insecurities, reminds of Greta Gerwig's faux-renaissance woman Brooke in Noah Baumbach's Mistress America. Both women cannot exist without deflection, but strangely, the character from our "me-first" modern age is left with a hopeful conclusion, while Stillman's smiling viper ends up exactly where she belongs, smiling from the matrimonial gallows as her daughter finds true happiness. In the end, some people just want to watch the world yearn.