There have been several fine big screen Jane Austen adaptations over the years, but none quite as delectable as Love & Friendship (****). Based on an early epistolary novella entitled Lady Susan, the film, written and directed by Whit Stillman, is an exquisite distillation of Austen’s irony drenched witticisms, delightfully rendered by a cast that understands how to deliver her pithy dialogue without tripping over it. Chief among that cast is Kate Beckinsale, on career-best form as the aforementioned Lady Susan, a woman of “diabolical genius” when it comes to manipulating those around her, but so ruthlessly entertaining it’s impossible not to root for her. Newly widowed and impoverished, she’s intent on securing her future in a world where “visibly rich and rather simple” men are ideal marriage material and those who are “too old to be governable and too young to die” should be avoided at all cost. We get our first glimpse of her leaving a country estate in haste – the men in thrall to her, the women in hysterics. We’ll soon come to understand why. Described early on as the “most accomplished flirt in England”, she arrives at the house of her amenable brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards). His wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), is rather more disapproving, fearful that her own brother, the handsome but pliable Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), is too weak to resist Lady Susan’s charms. The plot thickens considerably with the arrival of Lady Susan’s drippy daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who is too hung up on marrying for love to accept the attentions of Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), the wealthy idiot her mother has gone to great lengths to set her up with. The film, which is fleet-footed and frivolous in the best way possible, fires through one dizzying scheme after another as the unflappable Lady Susan – tongue barbed, mind sharp – conquers all before her. She’s hilarious, particularly in her exchanges with her American friend and confidant, Alicia Johnson, played with conspiratorial perfection by Chloë Sevigny, who reteams with Beckinsale for the first time since co-starring in Stillman’s brilliant Last Days of Disco. And on the subject of Stillman, this is a much more satisfying comeback than 2012’s Damsels in Distress, which was so insular at times it felt suffocating. Having been heavily influenced by Austen since his 1990 debut Metropolitan (itself a riff on Mansfield Park), it’s a wonder he hasn’t gone back to the source before. Well, better late than never.
Money Monster (***) is the sort of film that should have been better, angrier and much more adept at walking a fine line between satire and silliness. Directed by Jodie Foster and starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, it’s a well-meaning attempt to rail against the rigged nature of high finance, undone by its own lack of focus, smugness, and the fact that The Big Short already took a flamethrower to this subject. Clooney stars as Lee Gates, the arrogant host of a stock-market investment show that has turned financial advice into a form of garish entertainment. The day after a Bear Stearns-esque brokerage firm looses $800m, he’s taken hostage live on air by a disgruntled delivery guy (Jack O’Connell) who ploughed his savings into the company after Lee promised it was safer than a saving’s account. Thenceforth the film becomes a stand-off between O’Connell’s gun-and-bomb-wielding Kyle, Lee, and Lee’s long-suffering producer, Patty (Roberts), who is attempting to cut through the firm’s corporate spin in an effort to keep Kyle from blowing her studio up. It’s not an unpromising idea and Foster certainly gets some mileage out of Clooney and Roberts’ star-wattage, as well as O’Connell’s ability to hold onto his rawness in such a polished environment. But the script feels like it was written by an algorithm designed to accumulate all the best bits from Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Inside Man (in which Foster starred). In the end it relies on its own amiable status as a star-studded thriller to cover for the fact that it hasn’t got all that much to say.
Alice Through The Looking Glass (**) suffers from the opposite problem. Its stars don’t do enough to cover for the absence of an engaging narrative. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is still a bit too creepy to be appealing and Mia Wasikowska’s turn as Alice only gets interesting when the character’s mental health is called into question. Though the production design is impressive, only Sacha Baron Cohen’s Werner Herzog-inspired portrayal of Time personified demonstrates the flash of inspiration required to make Lewis Carroll’s world come properly to life. It’s an improvement on its Tim Burton directed predecessor, but not by much.
More entertaining is Minuscule: The Valley of the Lost Ants (***), a slight, but charming family film that combines live action cinematography with animated insects to tell a siege story about a ladybug that helps a tribe of black ants defend its home from a tribe of red fire ants. Though based on a French TV show, the action is worldless and should keep younger kids entertained for 90 minutes.
Finally this week, The Daughter (***) is a well acted Australian family drama, inspired by Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, but too heavily melodramatic to really get away with well-worn plot turns that inextricably link two families together. Jeffrey Rush and Sam Neill star as the family patriarchs and former business partners whose dealings have complicated the lives of their grown-up children in ways that will inevitably have tragic consequences.