Thank you, Emma Thompson.

Since this Oscar-winning actress and writer reinvented how to make a movie from a classic romantic novel – with her sterling adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in 1995 – we have seen a marvelous screen parade of rich characters wearing fancy frocks and articulating witty observations. Even television’s Downton Abbey, and its creator Julian Fellows, should thank Thompson for the fresh spirit she brought to a genre once considered stuffy and dull.

Thompson’s creative spirit fills the new romantic comedy Love and Friendship that credits a pair of Jane Austen stories for its narrative. The film’s appealing plot – of a young widow who fills her days manipulating relationships around her – reflects Austen’s view of the follies people follow when pursuing romantic entanglements. As much as Austen may be the source, the film’s sound and tone are directly influenced by Thompson’s view of such pursuits. No matter who should get the credit, the film is a lot of fun as the characters prance around uttering romantic nonsense while dressed in delicious, pompous outfits. Movies are rarely so enjoyable.

As if following Thompson’s “how to adapt Jane Austen to the screen” instruction booklet, writer/director Whit Stillman stokes the heart of Austen’s prose while making necessary embellishments for the screen. Just as Thompson adapted Sense and Sensibility (and doctored the Pride and Prejudice script) Stillman savors the soul of Austen’s view of the world without limiting the action to the author’s short, deliberate conversations. Such an approach may work on the written page – where readers can take the time to absorb – but not on screen when the filmmaker must set the rhythm. Like Thompson, Stillman adds substance that Austen suggests rather than precisely duplicating what Austen penned. The result gives a movie audience a richer look at the characters that Austen inspired readers to imagine. The new film crackles with the sharp, witty dialogue that Austen herself could have created had she been a screenwriter instead of a novelist.

Kate Beckinsale, an actress who rarely gets such an opportunity to show off on screen, demonstrates how intelligence, humor and style can create an unbeatable combination when a woman takes on the weaker men in her world. In a series of conversations – some directly lifted and others expanded from Austen’s text – Beckinsale soars as a woman of substance who dares to hide her layers because she knows how people respond to the superficial. As strong as her work, though, Tom Bennett skips away with the performance honors as a man whose lack of self-awareness barely overshadows his abundance of self-congratulation. Whether commenting on the presence of peas on a dinner plate, or contemplating which of the commandments may not be necessary, Bennett perfectly captures the audacity some can bring to the basic requirements of daily life.

In a summer filled with action films that rely on character generation, it’s refreshing to discover a movie that naturally emerges from a world of thought and reason. Love and Friendship reminds us that, at the movies, character will always matter, and sharp dialogue will never age.

Love and Friendship

  • Content: High. How a widow tries to soothe her hurt by manipulating the romances of others delivers a delightful journey to the world of Jane Austen.
  • Entertainment: High. While the film is set in a bygone era, the crackling dialogue from Whit Stillman makes it feel today while respecting its time period.
  • Message: Medium. Yes, Austen loved to comment on the follies of people and their romances. And Stillman perfectly captures the author’s intent.
  • Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to share a film this sharp and entertaining with our children can be great fun even if younger members of the family may get restless.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Share this film with your older children as an opportunity to discuss how an author’s works can transfer to the screen.

(Love and Friendship is rated PG for “some thematic elements”. The film runs 92 minutes. Read about other film adaptations of great novels in Arts and Leisure Online.) Reel Dad rating: Four and a half popcorn buckets.

Want more?

The delights of Love and Friendship remind us of favorite movie moments that emerge when great books are adapted for the screen. In recent years, films based on the works of such writers as Jane Austen, E.M. Forrester and Edith Wharton have created delightful experiences. Here are a few of the best.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

With an Oscar-winning screenplay from Emma Thompson, precise direction from Ang Lee, and rich performances from Thompson, Kate Winslet and a host of character actors, this adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel set a new standard for movie translations as it reinvented the costume romance. That it lost the Best Picture award to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart remains a frustrating Oscar outcome. This is a must for anyone who loves literature on film.

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

The popularity of Sense and Sensibility prompted Joe Wright to create a new adaptation of the most popular Austen novel. Unlike the 1940 film version starring Greer Garson – that focused on the serious dimensions of the story – this new interpretation crackles with humor thanks, in part, to the script doctoring that Emma Thompson reportedly contributed. Keira Knightly has never again been so appealing as in a role that delights with contradictions.

Howard’s End (1992)

The movie making team of James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala delivered, over the years, a range of ideal interpretations of great novels. This translation of the E.M. Forster story of two sisters navigating the complexities of relationships won Emma Thompson a Best Actress Oscar and made her a star. What’s magical about the film is how Ivory and Jhabvala suggest Forster’s intentions without duplicating what’s on the page. And the film is a visual treat, too.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

When Martin Scorcese announced plans to depart the world of gangsters and violence for the manners of an Edith Wharton novel, movie fans wondered what he might create. It’s no surprise that a director who makes crime a visual experience does the same for the subtleties of romantic entanglements in a period when few could clearly express their emotions. Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day Lewis radiate the passions and frustrations of the times.

A Passage to India (1984)

After navigating the book to movie translations of Doctor Zhivago and Bridge on the River Kwai with wide screen grandeur, the great director David Lean streamlined the scope of his screen with this touching look at the tragedy misunderstanding can create. Judy Davis is sublime as a woman trying to make sense of her emotions while Dame Peggy Ashcroft walks away with the film in a performance of wit and grace. She provides the wisdom the story demands in movie that is perfectly lifted from the pages by E.M. Forster.

A Room With a View (1985)

Once again, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala turn to the pages of E.M. Forster for this delightful look at how the winds of Italy can create the breeze of romantic interest. While Helena Bonham Carter is a delightful heroine – and Daniel Day Lewis a surprising suitor – the movie belongs to Maggie Smith as a protective chaperone. No surprise she cracks the dialogue with precise timing and appealing tone in a portrayal that suggests some of her future work.

As we savor with Love and Friendship, these classic films remind us how good a movie can be when creators respect the soul of literature without feeling obligated to transfer each word.

See you at the movies.