Jane Austin adaptations are a lot trickier than they may seem on the surface. While they might first look like straightforward character studies involving studied manners and clearly-defined social norms but there’s usually lots more going on in the character’s motivations than are betrayed in their actions. And that can be hard to translate from the page, where the opportunities for exposition and narration are pretty limitless, to the screen, where they need to be conveyed in a much different way. Some succeed, some don’t.
Entering the fray is Love & Friendship, the new movie from writer/director Wilt Stillman. Based on the book “Lady Susan,” it tells the story of Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Bekinsale) a woman who pleasures in both adhering to and upsetting the societal strictures of her time. Visiting her in-laws while weathering a bit of bad gossip about her she tries to get both herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) a husband. While there she also spends time with what we would now call her “frenemy” Alicia (Chloë Sevigny).
A poster was released around the same time as the movie’s Sundance premiere that showed the two leads standing and looking at each other in front of a stately house, clearly setting the time period of the story. A cluster of words above them seem to describe their relationship while the tagline below that states “A lady never reveals her tactics,’ hinting at the intrigue that we’ll see play out.
A second poster clearly positions Beckinsale as the star in the same way the first trailer does. So she’s front and center in her society-appropriate finery, a couple of gentlemen flanking her on either side who we can presume are either love interests or pawns in her machinations. Sevigny sits in the carriage behind them all and the whole thing is set in the courtyard of a lavish estate. A critic pull quote appears at the top with five stars that declares the movie “Flat-out hilarious” and below the title treatment we’re told this is based on Jane Austen’s “comic gem.”
This one isn’t as good as the first simply because it comes off as much more staged, which isn’t a good look for comedy, even a comedy of manners like this. That quote at the top is necessary because there’s nothing here that identifies the movie as being remotely funny, though to be fair that’s the case for the first poster too. So it needs to take those extra steps to tell the audience it’s alright to laugh at the goings-on.
The movie’s first trailer is funny and charming. Everyone is talking about Lady Susan before her arrival as she’s referred to as a massive flirt and so on. The whole rest of the trailer is about her setting her daughter up for marriage, managing a suitor of her own as well as a married man she’s carrying on an affair with. Lady Susan is constantly referred to as a whirlwind of destruction on all around her, descriptions that are backed up by the way she acts and just kind of manages the people she knows in a way that she sees fit.
It’s pretty funny in that Jane Austin kind of way and it’s clear Beckinsale gives a wonderful, fully-featured performance in the lead role. Sevigny is given minimal screen time, which is too bad, but this is about setting up the main character and showing everyone what the basic story. On that front it succeeds.
Online and Social
The trailer pops up and plays when you load the official website and is certainly worth your time to rewatch. As you scroll down the page you’ll find a “Synopsis” that recaps the story pretty well and sets up the situations the characters find themselves in. There are a also a series of photos, images and videos that have been posted to promote the movie since the site is apparently built on Tumblr.
Moving on to the menu that’s just below the key art, “Cast & Crew” brings up background information on Beckinsale, Sevigny, Stillman and Austin. “Reviews” offers a pull quote from early festival reviews of the movie as well as, nicely, links to the full write-ups. “Soundtrack” takes you to Amazon where you can buy the music from the movie and “Tickets” lets you…you guessed it…buy tickets.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Some online advertising was done that used key art to get people to click through to the official website. Nothing that I could find in the way of TV advertising, though and I’m not aware of any outdoor or other paid placement.
Media and Publicity
Just before the movie had its Sundance premiere, Amazon and Roadhouse picked it up for both theatrical and on-demand release. While there the cast talked about coming together as an ensemble and working on a costume drama like this. The movie came back to everyone’s attention when it was announced as the opening film at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.
Stillman talked in this interview about how he first became aware of this obscure Austen novel and what motivation was to bring it to the screen. And Beckinsale talked about the way she immersed herself in the world of the story to prepare for the role and loved that it was an overt comedy from Austin, combining laughs with the manners and rules of society at that time.
There’s a lot to like here, with the emphasis placed squarely on the rules and manners that make up society and how Lady Susan openly flouts them, steadfastly adhering to her own set of rules. Beckinsale is clearly in her element as a woman who marches to her own beat and doesn’t give a damn what other people think, something the campaign highlights and which makes me wish she’d do more comedy.
To that point, the movie is very much being sold as a dry comedy, not even as a comedy of manners or anything like that. Sure, there’s some of that in here but the trailer in particular wants to present it almost free of the expectations that come with being a Jane Austin adaptation while also taking advantage of the association with her name. That may sound like a contradiction but it’s not really and it works here. If you’re a fan of bone-dry comedy this one is being marketed especially to you.