Whit Stillman’s elegant, witty Love & Friendship, based on Lady Susan, an unpublished novella by Jane Austen, opens this Friday after premiering in the Premieres section of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Unsurprisingly, the pairing of Stillman, known for his sophisticated comedies of social mores, and Austen, beloved for her 19th-century romantic fiction, proved to be as well-made a match as any that might appear in the works of the English author.
Before the film’s premiere, Stillman, who made his Sundance debut in 1990 with Metropolitan, even joked to the audience that his films “have often been accused of being set in Georgian times.” The story follows Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), a beautiful, scheming widow who visits wealthy in-laws on their country estate while waiting out gossip about her romantic indiscretions as it passes through polite society. While living there, she enlists her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) to help secure a husband for herself and her rather reluctant debutante daughter, Frederica.
The period comedy serves as a reunion for actors Beckinsale and Sevigny, who costarred in Stillman’s 1998 comedy, The Last Days of Disco. Sevigny noted that it was “nice to have the familiarity already there.”
Among the liberties Stillman said he took in adapting Austen’s work, which he described as “concluded in a sense but not completed,” was providing an American background for Sevigny’s character because it seemed a good idea to have the experience of the American exiles in London. The actress joked that it was because she couldn’t nail the British accent.
Despite the exquisite work from the two female leads, it’s the performance of Tom Bennett as Sir James, an amusing but wealthy idiot who becomes a pawn in Lady Susan’s plans, who truly wows. It’s another character that Stillman embellished from the original text after watching the actor’s screen test. “[Bennett] created this character based on a couple of scenes that were in the novel,” Stillman told the crowd. “He was so exciting that I wrote more for him. That’s a scene that’s more film than novel.”
The director admitted that he’d hoped to make this film for many years. “I think those who love Jane Austen want another book in the library, so this is a chance for something else to be available,” Stillman added