“‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mister Right” – Madonna in her song Material Girl.
The title of the latest film from the multi-talented writer/director/producer Whit Stillman might seem a bit confusing. Both the movie and its title come from Jane Austen, but they aren’t one and the same. The title is from a “juvenile” story while the story itself is from a novel titled Lady Susan.
Set near the end of the 1700s, this is the story of “Lady Susan Vernon” (Kate Beckinsale). She is a beautiful, young widow whose husband’s passing has left her finances in a very poor state. She means to find wealthy husbands for herself and her daughter, “Frederica” (Morfydd Clark). With nowhere else to go after having to leave the home where she was doing the 18th century version of couch-surfing for nobility, she winds up at Churchill, the country estate of her late husband’s brother “Charles Vernon” (Justin Edwards) and his wife “Catherine” (Emma Greenwell).
At Churchill Lady Susan meets Catherine’s brother, “Reginald DeCourcy” (Xavier Samuel) who is handsome, charming and wealthy. The two begin a flirtation although Lady Susan has other targets in mind for matrimony. One being “Sir James Martin” (Tom Bennett), a daft dandy who is even wealthier than Reginald.
Lady Susan is aided in her sinister scheming by “Alicia Johnson” (Chloë Sevigny). She is only too happy to assist, although her husband does not want her involved with Lady Susan. In fact, he has threatened to send Alicia to America if she doesn’t stay away from Lady Susan. As all of these machinations are going on, Lady Susan is actually involved with a married man. “Lord Manwaring” (Lochlann O’Mearáin) is suspected by his wife “Lady Lucy” (Jenn Murray) of infidelity.
The Vernons want to keep Reginald away from Lady Susan. They also want Frederica, once she has come to Churchill, to remain there. Lady Susan sees Sir James as a potential mate for Frederica and plans to ensnare Reginald for herself.
The last time Whit Stillman directed a film with both Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny acting in it was 1998’s The Last Days of Disco. Like that and his other movies, Metropolitan, Barcelona and Damsels in Distress, Love & Friendship is a finely-crafted film that contains compelling story and social commentary. His writing is reminiscent of David Mamet’s in that there is a unique cadence to the way he constructs dialogue. He is also a director who gets the most of the well-chosen casts in his movies. You can see the Stillman influence in the similarities between this film’s Lady Susan and “Charlotte” in The Last Days of Disco. Both parts portrayed by Kate Beckinsale, the two women are alike and different all at once. Kate Beckinsale is brilliant as Lady Susan. This is one of her best performances in some time.