Love & Friendship ***½|****

Kate Beckinsale and Xavier Samuel in Love & Friendship
Kate Beckinsale and Xavier Samuel in Love & Friendship

Jane Austen’s work has been brought to the screen countless times before but this adaptation of her posthumously released novel Lady Susan brings a new level of comedic prowess that may surprise those going in expecting another period costume drama. Love & Friendship does maintain Austen’s most prevalent themes of propriety and prosperity in 18th century England but does so with a savage wit and a cheeky playfulness to match. What’s more, this story also centers around a character who seems diametrically opposed to the morally virtuous heroines that have long been a trademark of Austen’s most iconic novels.

Kate Beckinsale gives what may be her best performance ever as the newly widowed Lady Susan Vernon, who wastes no time trying to find a new suitor and wishes to accomplish the same goal for her modest daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) in the process. While visiting the estate of her in-laws, she is pursued by the young and naive Reginald (Xavier Samuel) while Frederica is ineffectually paired with the hilarious dimwitted yet inexplicably wealthy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). During her pursuit, Lady Susan has intermittent conversations with her American friend Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), who offers her own perspective on Susan’s affairs.

This is admittedly the first film that I’ve seen from director Whit Stillman, who previously directed both Beckinsale and Sevigny in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, but I’m eager to discover some of his previous work. Beyond his expert handling of the characters and a consistent mood of whimsy, he also has stylistic touches that add just the right amount of personality without drawing too much attention to themselves. I was particularly fond of the unconventional way that characters were introduced towards the beginning, with a sequence of shots that feature each main player posing above captions that reveal their name and most notable characteristic.

Some of these more theatrical touches are accompanied by a looser and more modern feeling screenplay that’s both whip-smart and filled with plenty of dryly humorous moments.  There are a host of clever one-liners and pointed bits of wordplay, primarily spoken by Lady Susan, that are capable of cutting characters to their core before they even realize what’s really being said to them. Beckinsale delivers these lines with a sort of polite viciousness that not only feels appropriate for the milieu but also underlines the manipulative and casually cruel nature of her character in a way that still makes her oddly likeable.

While Stillman’s script doesn’t touch on much in the way of character development and complex storytelling, it more than makes up for it with a crackling sense of verbosity. In a just world, we’ll be talking about this movie again next February for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. If anything, the dialogue is so packed and often spoken so deftly that I don’t doubt a re-watch or two (preferably with subtitles) would help me enjoy the film’s brilliant brand of banter even more. There’s something wickedly satisfying and utterly delightful about Love & Friendship that should allow both avid Austen fans and casual movie goers to effuse its accomplishments.