by Mark Ahn
In box #1, there’s action Kate. All of the silly but fun black bodysuit nonsense from the Underworld movies (and by nonsense, I mean that I watched those a bunch of times), which led to less fun nonsense in the form of Van Helsing or Total Recall. In box #2, there’s sideshow Kate, the one who’s a negligible part in bigger movies, from good ones to bad ones (The Aviator, Click), but making minimal impression.
It’s easy to add the contents of what’s above and come to the conclusion that Kate Beckinsale is a cold performer, seemingly always playing a one-note character or one that is simply devoid of normal human emotion. It’s easy to forget the liveliness and energy she brought to her earlier roles in smaller movies; it makes you think that perhaps she just put that behind her.
So I was surprised to see her in the lead of director Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, because who could picture Kate Beckinsale in a Jane Austen movie? A comedy? But it works, really well.
The acting is generally excellent, which isn’t always easy in a very “writerly” movie like this one where the dialogue has the rhythm and cadence of a bygone era, but still has to maintain the particular wit of Austen. I had to admit there were a few moments where I couldn’t quite catch what was said, but was able to catch up as the movie progressed. Beckinsale is at the center of all of it: witty, blunt, and ironic. It’s easy to see how Beckinsale’s aloof persona could be put to good use in a comedy centered on a character who cuts a wide, Machiavellian swath through polite society. She belittles, she lies, she delivers insults with a smile, and then she talks crap about you to her best friend (another Stillman alum, Chloe Sevigny). She’s energetic and really funny, and fun to watch. There is plenty of humor in Stillman’s penchant for “comedies of mannerliness”: the strange disconnect between the civility we present to the world to cover up meanness we have within. Lady Susan is perfectly content to make this dynamic, which so often weighs down the women within her society, completely work for her. She follows her cultural letters to the rule, and breaks away when it means the most to her.
Of particular note is Tom Bennett, who plays the kindhearted but dimwitted Lord James Martin; Bennett toes the line between making the character pitiable rather than pitiful. The humor is a broad, but he’s completely believable as a type of suitor that tests whether someone should marry for love or for stability.
Looking back Kate Beckinsale’s filmography, I noticed that she hadn’t really headlined a critically successful film. She’s definitely in some intriguing ones, like Laurel Canyon, or her other collaboration with Whit Stillman, The Last Days of Disco, but never carried the weight of a movie all by herself. And even though there’s another Underworld movie on the way (don’t worry, I’ll definitely end up watching it), Beckinsale, with set design and the screenplay as co-stars, makes the best film of her career and one of my favorites so far for 2016.
Agree wholeheartedly, Mark. This one really flew under the radar. Everyone needs to see this movie now.ReplyDelete
Thanks JB! It's great counter-programming for most summer fare, and it's just a hair over 90 minutes.Delete
This comment has been removed by the author.Delete
Loved the movie. It's in my top 5.ReplyDelete
I only know Kate Beckinsale from Cold Comfort Farm and Much Ado About Nothing. She was really great (in CCF - in Much Ado she was basically mute), so I was always kind of surprised she transitioned into the bodysuit thing when she was fantastic at playing witty, catty and ironic. She sounds like a force in this one. I'm looking forward to seeing it and was HOPING to read a good review on it. Thank you, Mark! I've still gotta see Phoenix, too!ReplyDelete
I haven't seen COLD COMFORT FARM, but I was surprised to learn that it was a TV movie. I think her transition was less about her then-husband being involved and more about wanting a change of pace from the period pieces and costume things that mostly did.Delete
Let me know when you see PHOENIX; it is great.
I'm another Cold Comfort Farm lover (and it has an excellent cast overall, with Ian McKellan, Rufus Sewell and Joanna Lumley showing up). It's really good early Beckinsale.Delete
Related to period pieces and Jane Austen...my sister recently told me that our childhood favorite, Sense and Sensibility, was greatly altered by screenwriter Emma Thompson from its original Austen state. Emma basically inserted all the best bits! She made all of the bits where you can really feel how oppressed and bound the women are - humorous. It's the jokes and the humorous personalities that really deal the biggest blows to the women in that movie. It brought it to life and kept it from being flat and succumbing to the oppressiveness of the subject.Delete
Oh no, Mark Ahn, where'd ya go?ReplyDelete
Well I finally saw this, as I enjoyed this review and many others you wrote! It was delightful in that the characters were mostly strong (I was only a little confused with her daughter at times), but the story! So frustrating! It didn't do the characters any justice, which I'm sure is due to the nature of the source material as you mentioned, but the second got so wandery. And Austen endings are usually so neat and tidy and "this person with this person" and "that person with that person", like a game of musical chairs.
Anyway. My favorite scene is Beckinsale with her daughter, right?? She was devastatingly good. Damn. But come on, how could you-Know-who truly fall for you-know-who at the end, am I right? Totally not a match.
I'm glad I saw it. Loved the direction, acting, humor. I wished someone else finished it off by writing a stronger plot.
I'm still around, no worries. Thank you for your very kind comments! I'd agree with you that the conversation between Lady Susan and her daughter (about the nature of relationships) is the highlight of the film, and captures the film's heart.
If I'm reading you right, you're talking about how the daughter ends up with her particular suitor? I would say that it is a bit of a convenient match, and doesn't seem to be really motivated by love, necessarily. The ending with Lady Susan and her menage a trois is hilarious, and seems destined for failure, but I get the feeling she knows that already.
Glad to hear you're around! Always liked your insights.Delete
Yeah it is super convenient. I guess I just wanted to think Lady Susan planned that all along or at least intended that match for her daughter from the beginning as if she was THAT powerful and persuasive. But instead she had to change her course and seemed to be kind of scrambling more than hustling toward the end. I wanted to think this smart, independent woman had more say in the way things would go, like some plotting genius, but aside from having a side guy (which in itself is interesting - does there even exist a derogatory term for a man equivalent of "mistress"?), the deck remained pretty stacked against her and sucky at the end IMO. So my overall impression was that it's clever but it didn't break the convention of those times. And maybe I'm TOTALLY missing something because I'm not that cleverrr....very possible. Anyway :) Thank you for the discussion!
I think I agree you in that we don't always see Lady Susan as conniving as she's made out to be; my memory of it feels like she did most of that stuff offscreen, which definitely jives with your point about the structure of the source material. There's a statement here about how even the slickest operator still has to work inside of a framework that is set against her. Maybe her desperation at the end, as you put it, is just indicative of what women are stuck with.Delete