Non-prolific writer/director Whit Stillman – this is only his fifth feature in 26 years – tackles his first screenplay based on previous material, in this case the Jane Austen novella Lady Susan. It's a quirky choice, but perhaps predictably so, considering the filmmaker's reputation. Heaven knows, Austen's six novels have been bled dry by screen adaptations. Yet her sole work of short fiction has never before been filmed. Stillman, whose own modern-day comedies of manners have often been compared to Austen's, may have found this union inevitable. Why not, then, adapt the one Austen story that everyone else had left alone?
The resulting film, Love & Friendship, is pretty much what you'd expect from a Stillman/Austen collaboration: drily funny, nice to look at, but trifling. Perhaps this is why other filmmakers have avoided this particular story: there's not much of it to tell. Stillman, however, revels in the small moments. In fact he makes a habit of leapfrogging over the big plot points in order to get to the next droll conversation. One scene quietly ends, the next one quietly begins, and we're told that in the interim somebody had a heated argument, got married, and so forth.
Whereas other filmmakers endeavor to open up Austen's world with sprawling sets and all-star casts, Stillman's stubbornly small-scale approach makes Love & Friendship feel the most Austen-like of all the adaptations, for better or worse. There are a couple of names in the cast: Kate Beckinsale plays Lady Susan, a notorious flirt focused on getting both herself and her daughter engaged; Chloë Sevigny, who starred with Beckinsale in Stillman's The Last Days of Disco, plays her American confidante; Stephen Fry pops up as fleetingly as possible. Yet it is little-known British actor Tom Bennett, playing buffoonish suitor Sir James Martin, who steals the show. Silly as his character is, he breathes the only real life into the film.