“Love & Friendship” takes us to an England where manners overrule morals and the aristocracy, once crafty men and women of ambition, have lapsed into overbred boobs. A young widow, Lady Susan, can’t work, and so must either marry or find a suitably wealthy mate for her oft-neglected daughter. In the end, “love will find out its way.”

Written and directed by American Whit Stillman (“Last Days of Disco”), Stillman takes Jane Austen’s 1794 novel “Lady Susan” as her juvenile story “Love and Friendship” to craft a flirtatious movie on manners. This film has none of the snap and snark of “Downton Abbey” but it touches on the plight of well-born women. Lady Mary couldn’t inherit so she needed to marry well. If her mother had had a son, the land, ancestral home and monies would have been kept within the family and her marriage to the heir and production of a son settled matters.

Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) understands the perils and imperatives of her position.  The film begins on a vast English estate in the 1790s as military drums signal a march and then a lament as the woman we will learn is Lady Susan departs: “Langford, Langford. If only it hadn’t been for Langford, how happy we should have been.” A man runs after Lady Susan, and a woman runs after him.

The players are presented with each framed while named and characterized by subtitles.  Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin)  is “a divinely attractive man” while Lady Lucy Manwaring (Jenn Murray) is “his wealthy wife.” Miss Maria Manwaring (Sophie Radermacher) is “his eligible younger sister.” Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) is “wealthy young suitor of Frederica and Maria” and “a bit of a rattle.”

Lady Susan Vernon, having no other refuge, visits her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his good-hearted wife Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell). Before her arrival, Catherine’s brother (Xavier Samuel) proclaims that Lady Susan is
“the most accomplished flirt of all England.”

Lady Susan can easily justify her interests and actions. She has only a daughter and desperation. Her morality is shaped by her needs. Lady Susan sends her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), off to an expensive boarding school and, speaking to her friend and servant, Mrs. Cross (Kelly Campbell), she considers that the tuition is so high that it would be foolish to pay it. To others, she explains because there is a whiff of friendship between her and Mrs. Cross, it would be offensive to pay her for her services.

At Churchill, Charles Vernon’s estate, Lady Susan considers the “callow idleness” of Catherine Vernon’s brother, Reginald of interest. He’s an “agreeable flirt” but she thinks, “How delightful it will be to humble the pride of these pompous DeCourcys.”

Frederica ends up joining them after she has been expelled from school. In private, Lady Susan admonishes her, telling her, “We don’t live, we visit.” Frederica can’t bear to be with her intended. Lady Susan argues that Sir James means to give her the only thing he has of value to offer: his income. “If a life of comfort such as Sir James has to offer is not to your taste, what will you do?”

Frederica offers, “I could teach” but Lady Susan responds that she hasn’t been at school long enough to understand how silly such an idea is (sorry Jane Eyre).  Then she brings in the church reminding Frederica that “thou shalt honor thy father and mother” and then considers that “had I let you starve a little bit more” Frederica might better understand the pragmatic aspects of their plight.

Lady Susan sets to work on Reginald, giving his sister and parents Sir Reginald (James Fleet) and Lady DeCourcy (Jemma Redgrave) cause to worry. We later hear Reginald parroting Lady Susan’s words to Frederica. As the movie draws on, we understand just what “rattle” means as Sir James expounds on peas or books.

Yet that kind of vacant mental state has its uses. Sir James does find his perfect match, a best bestie and the reason Lady Susan changed her plans for Frederica become apparent. Good natured Frederica and the honor of the Decourcys allows for true courtly love. Some friendships (Chloe Sevigny as Alicia Johnson) will be broken, because not all husbands (Stephen Fry as Mr. Johnson) are dullards and easily duped.

“Love & Friendship” is a romance of constricted manners that laughs at the unwitting cuckold at the end, but balances that out with sweet match where a damsel finds her true family through what begins as friendship. Still too often I found myself longing for some ancestral woman shaped in the spirit of Downton Abbey’s Violet Crawley, even though “Love & Friendship” takes place in a different time period, hundreds of years before the stern Violet Crawley was unleashed on the English countryside.

“Love & Friendship” currently streams on Amazon.com and is included in premium.

 

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