Saturday 24 September 2016

On DVD: "Love & Friendship"

With some style and not untypical intelligence, the writer-director Whit Stillman has brought himself in from the margins of American cinema, via a succession of projects that sustained the illusion of giving the beancounters (and possibly even the audience) what they wanted while insisting on doing very much their own thing. 2011's Damsels in Distress could be sold as another candy-coloured campus comedy, even as it pursued a more philosophical bent; his Amazon Prime pilot The Cosmopolitans opened up the possibility of a move into television, current medium of choice for any grown-up who couldn't give a fig about superheroics. Now Stillman ventures Love & Friendship, an adaptation of a lesser-known Jane Austen text ("Lady Susan"), which lands at a post-Downton moment when the period drama has never been more prominent in the audience's imagination, nor more marketable. (Accordingly, it swiftly became Stillman's biggest hit to date upon its theatrical run earlier in the summer.)

As has been widely observed, the new film tesselates closely with the status-obsessed worlds set out elsewhere in this director's back catalogue: the preppy New York of Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, the ex-pat communities of Barcelona and The Cosmopolitans. Yet if L&F retains a measure of stiff formality - introducing all its dramatis personae with typeset captions - it also offers the ruffling shock of seeing a filmmaker entering this genre, at this late stage in the day, and demonstrating more interest in the words being spoken than he really does in the costumes and fixtures. How this outsider came to shake up British high society is mirrored in Austen's plot, which sees a black sheep - Kate Beckinsale's penniless widow Susan - returning to the fold of her extended family, an American confidante (Chloe Sevigny) in tow, at a moment of crisis that has set everybody to gabbing at once.

Rather than seeking to immerse us in this world, Stillman's dipping a toe in and looking at it askance - and what he sees, with its frills and love letters, is an innately silly construct, at least as ridiculous (and as ripe for mockery) as the hoity-toity members' clubs of Metropolitan or the snob's paradise of Disco or the DIY suicide prevention centre in Damsels. Immediately, that switch of perspective differentiates L&F from all those desperate Downton wannabes that have emerged over the past few years, hobbled in their attempts to match that show's Masterpiece Theater finery by their comparatively sparse budgets. Stillman, as an American freelancer working in an Ireland dressed to pass for Austenland, doesn't himself have the resources to throw lavish balls and wedding parties, but then his forte has always been tight groups of people in comfortable rooms, and it barely seems to matter that he can't wholly commit to the costume part: the film's closer in spirit and execution to a spoof like 1997's Stiff Upper Lips than it is to Sense & Sensibility.

Draping layers of irony over the footmen and Chesterfields might have irked the purists who take Austen's matchmaking seriously and insist that all her life-wisdoms be served straight, yet anecdotal evidence - and, perhaps most crucially, box-office returns - would suggest most demographics have gone away satisfied. Long-time Stillman fans will be further reminded of this filmmaker's enduring affection for the kind of ensemble players who can work distinct forms of magic on a screenwriter's words. (In this, he is markedly more generous and open-minded than either Tarantino or Woody Allen, who tend to insist all their players come to sound like them.) Damsels could be floated on the back of the wispy mumblecore movement as a vehicle for mumblequeen Greta Gerwig, but it wouldn't have been half the comedy it was without the contributions of her fellow Damsels, not to mention the lunks, jocks and dweebs who circled around them.

A similar tactic is in evidence here. Stillman crafts a legit star role for Beckinsale, not just picking up a career thread abandoned during her millennial plunge into blue-screen dreck (Underworld, Van Helsing), but skilfully weaving it into a character worthy of any more foursquare Austen adaptation. (L&F is the film that makes you realise the actress has a great nose for playing snobs.) Yet other faces and presences announce themselves beside her. Erstwhile Twilight makeweight Xavier Samuel - he was the third werewolf from the right, you'll remember - assumes the Taylor Nichols/Matt Keeslar/Adam Brody role of handsome swain who probably deserves better than to be stuck with this lot; the hitherto unobserved Tom Bennett pilfers whole sequences as a posh nitwit who's never eaten peas and has "quite funny" ideas about the opposite sex.

I had a few reservations. Stillman has so far enjoyed an easier ride than many directors who've continually returned to rooms full of landed white folk, possibly because he seems to know them so well, possibly because the portraits he paints there aren't as overtly flattering or genuflecting as those painted by Allen, or the Anderson-Baumbach gang who followed him in the indie continuum. Either way, the stakes can feel low here: as in a spoof, you quickly gain a sense that nothing that occurs in the course of this quintessential divertissement really matters; that these characters are just pieces nudged into elegant, appealing formations in a puzzle Stillman feels he has to solve in order to earn a much-overdue commercial hit. And, as elsewhere in this director's filmography, it may take as long as half the film to develop an ear for all this twitter: Stillman, to his credit, is one of the few working American filmmakers whose work actively benefits from being seen and heard more than once, the better to relax into its aperçus. Still, there's no denying Love & Friendship brings something fresh into the drawing room: it's a tart, swift lancing of a genre that's sorely come to deserve it.

Love & Friendship is available on DVD through Curzon Artificial Eye from Monday. 

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