[Screen It]


(2016) (Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel) (PG)

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Dramedy: A late 18th century widow tries to manipulate others in order to find a husband for herself as well as her daughter.
It's the late 1700s and Lady Susan Vernon (KATE BECKINSALE) is a middle-aged woman with no money and no husband, what with being recently widowed. Despite her status, she's a confident woman, a trait that intimidates most other women, while her beauty attracts the men, such as the husband to Lady Lucy Manwaring (JENN MURRAY).

Lady Susan decides to travel from London to the country estate of her in-laws, Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (EMMA GREENWELL) and her husband, Charles (JUSTIN EDWARDS), where Catherine's brother, Reginald DeCourcy (XAVIER SAMUEL), is visiting and immediately entranced by the older woman.

That's part of Lady Susan's plan to manipulate others and situations in order to find a husband for herself, as well as her daughter, Frederica (MORFYDD CLARK), who's recently been expelled from school. Lady Susan believes her daughter should marry Sir James Martin (TOM BENNETT) who's already expressed an interest in her, but Frederica has no desire to marry the chatty and somewhat silly man.

Lady Susan confides all of this to her American friend, Alicia Johnson (CHLOň SEVIGNY), whose husband (STEPHEN FRY) keeps threatening to move them back to America, not only for his business, but also to get her away from Lady Susan. As all of that plays out and the weeks pass by, Lady Susan does what she can to get what she wants for herself and her daughter.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
The last time characters from a Jane Austen story hit the silver screen, a bunch of the undead crashed the party and overran the place. Yes, that was the bizarre and short-lived genre mash-up, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" where the likes of the Bennet family, Mr. Darcy and George Wickham had to contend with, well, hungry and determined zombies.

Returning to a more customary and art-house welcome adaptation of an Austen work, we now get the regularly scheduled costume drama look and feel back with "Love & Friendship." Unlike its better known cinematic brethren adaptations of "Sense and Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice," "Mansfield Park" and "Emma," this story of late 18th century high society manipulation was foreign to me.

And that's likely because it's actually based on an earlier Austen work known as "Lady Susan" that arrived on the scene nearly one hundred years after it was written, but never published, as an epistolary short story. Somewhat shockingly -- especially considering the popularity of Austen's other works -- it's never been turned into a film until now.

Written and directed by Whit Stillman -- who's only made four previous films over the course of more than a quarter century -- the film revolves around Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), a recently widowed manipulator of the highest order. With no husband and no money, she arrives at the country estate of her in-laws in order to secure a husband not only for herself, but also her daughter (Morfydd Clark) who's reportedly been expelled from school.

The latter already arrives with a suitor (Tom Bennett, in the film's most enjoyable and entertaining role playing a chatty fellow who doesn't know when to stop talking, even when he doesn't know what he's talking about), but Frederica wants no part of him. And Lady Susan's insistence that her daughter proceed anyway has the in-laws (played by Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, and Xavier Samuel) concerned, but little do they know they're all being manhandled, if you will, by the grand manipulator.

The latter is played to a T by Beckinsale who hopefully will keep doing more roles like this to help us forget she ever appeared in those dreadful "Underworld" movies. The actress -- reunited with Stillman and co-star ChloŽ Sevigny from their days of working on "The Last Days of Disco" -- seems to be having a blast inhabiting this woman, and despite her abhorrent behavior, you can't help but be entertained watching her in action.

Much of the dialogue is fun to behold as well, and Stillman starts off things in brisk mode, introducing the characters with onscreen titles and brief descriptors as if he's channeling Wes Anderson's filmmaking style. Other than some brief bits where spoken or read dialogue appears on the screen, that technique is mostly abandoned after that introductory bit that flies by so fast you don't have time to register all of the described inter-character connections and relationships.

The second half falters a bit in that the story jerks forward through time in ways that are not graceful but instead are somewhat jarring, thus giving that part of the film far more of an episodic feel than earlier on. It's not enough to derail the project, but considering the Anderson-esque approach earlier used, a more creative and imaginative method of moving the story forward certainly could have been employed and deployed. And it would have been fun to see more volleys of manipulation between the characters.

Nevertheless, there's enough to enjoy in his adaptation, especially from a dialogue front and particularly from the performances by Bennett and especially Beckinsale who shines in her part. It might be somewhat light Austen fare, but at least the zombies have been excised, thus leaving the original material to carry the offering. "Love & Friendship" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed May 30, 2016 / Posted June 3, 2016

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