Friday, 2 December 2016

Movie Review: Love & Friendship (2016)



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Given my willingness to accept frankly insane and rather low-brow themes and narratives in my cinema, I might have depicted myself as a fairly low-brow critic, despite my intentions of reading into films as best I can. And no other statement I’ve made will end up lending more credence to that than this: I’m really not that big on costume dramas. Not to say that there are examples that I have come to like: Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favourite adaptations of the Bard on screen. It’s just that the usual unmistakable stuffiness that pervades a lot of what we consider to be costume dramas never really works for me. It’s often too ingrained in a lifestyle so far removed from my own that, even for a guy who loves the fantastical, I find it hard to get invested. But hey, maybe today’s film could change that; if I’ve learnt anything this year, it’s that potential for success can exist in just about any sub-genre. But somehow, I doubt it. This is Love & Friendship.


The plot: Debutante Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), recently widowed, is looking for a suitably wealthy partner, both for herself and for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). When she encounters the aristocrat Reginald (Xavier Samuel), whom becomes smitten with her, it seems that she has at least found someone for her. However, due to her reputation, the nobles around her aren’t exactly going to be supportive of Susan’s intentions.

Fittingly enough for this type of story, adapted from Jane Austen, the cast is full of well-regarded British actors… and actors who, just going by their previous filmographies, should not be here. Samuel proved earlier this year that high-brow and posh isn’t exactly his mode, and Beckinsale has another film out right now consisting of fantasy genre tropes wrapped around what is basically faux-sophistication with Underworld. Combine that with the presence of ChloĆ« Sevigny, whose wheelhouse is closer to the highly questionable side of indie fare, and it can start to feel off… until you actually see them on screen. Whether it’s down to generally untapped potential in the actors or director Whit Stillman knowing exactly how to wring out the right performances (or possibly both), Beckinsale, Samuel and Sevigny, along with everyone else, do really well with the precise pronunciation and regal air of the dialogue, just as good if not sometimes better than the actors surrounding them.

This film seems to be fully aware of how easily this film could have been told on a theatrical stage as opposed to a theatrical screen. That becomes painfully apparent within a few minutes of the film commencing, as all the main players in this story are introduced to us through subtitles detailing their names, descriptions and relationships to other characters. It’s not unlike introductions found in most written play scripts, along with a few title cards used to detailing scene context. Now, as a style of storytelling, I wouldn’t take issue with this if it ultimately had a greater point and, aside from showing a basic misunderstanding of the medium of cinema, it doesn’t. In fact, even with its place as blatant exposition, it actually ends up rather pointless as, despite or perhaps because of such milquetoast character introduction, keeping up with who people are if they aren’t Beckinsale, Samuel or Tom Bennett isn’t easy. And then during the credits, it goes straight into schlocky straight-to-DVD genre film territory by having the cast laid out for us through clips of the film. This is usually a technique done when the film ends up running short and they need padding to make it feature-length, and I can only hope that that isn’t the case here.

With the story details and the characters being as irrevocably pompous as they are, this is basically meant to be a showing of the British upper-class at its more farcical. The film involves a lot of plotting to secure partners with a lot of wealth and prestige, often with venomous (or what passes for venomous, given the time period) barbs shot at Lady Susan. However, if this is meant to be something comical, it’s so low-key that it feels like this was meant solely for the kind of audience that makes it a habit of laughing through their noses. Not to say that this film is just never humourous as there are a few moments where the uber-poshness works, like when Reginald’s father Sir DeCourcy reads a letter to his wife. Unfortunately, the rest of it ends up being a little too stuffy… okay, a lot too stuffy, to really gel with. Oh, and if I never hear about the Kentish Nightingale again, it’ll be all too soon.

Now to get into the one part of this film that, by and large, never ceased to engage throughout the film’s run time: Tom Bennett as the fool Sir Martin. However, for as good as his performance objectively is, he doesn’t exactly engage for the best of reasons. After the many, many statements I’ve made concerning pretence and how I absolutely can’t stand it, I should love this character as he is essentially a loud example of the kind of person who quotes the Ten Commandments without understanding anything about them; he is a mockery of everything I hate. Unfortunately, in a feat that proves “annoying = funny” has been around for far longer than I originally thought, he is astoundingly annoying. He never gets called out directly for knowing far less than he pretends to, so all we have in terms of the comedy is seeing him make a complete ass of himself and that rampant idiocy on its own is meant to be funny. No such luck, and considering he seems to be the only character bringing any form of energy into the proceedings, he ends up dragging the rest of the work down around him.

All in all, even with my gripes concerning this film’s genre and overall style, I’m willing to concede that this just isn’t my kind of movie. The acting is good and the direction and production values fit the story perfectly but, between a general disinterest in the dealings of the British 1% and a sheer unwillingness to watch Sir Martin be annoying on screen for any longer than I have to, I couldn’t even pretend to be engaged by this film. It ranks higher than The 5th Wave as, unintentionally funny or not, this film isn’t nearly as incompetent. However, even though I’m still not that big on the film, Carol at least had real ambition in both its storytelling and its direction; this just feels like par for the course.

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