‘If I loved you less,’ Jane Austen famously wrote in ‘Emma’, ‘I might be able to talk about it more.’ Judging from the non-stop chat in Whit Stillman’s witty, winning comedy based on Austen’s novel ‘Lady Susan’, love is barely on the minds of its characters – least of all Susan (Kate Beckinsale, knockout). This aristocratic, eighteenth-century schemer has more important things to worry about; namely, money and an advantageous marriage.
With an unpaid servant in tow, the newly widowed Susan arrives at a sprawling country pile for an extended visit. Her ulterior motive is to woo the young, handsome and impossibly rich Reginald (Xavier Samuel), who falls for her immediately. But, in an unexpected complication, Lady Susan’s neglected teenage daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark, captivating) runs away from boarding school and shows up too. Sensing a potential romantic rival, our devious heroine begins plotting with her American friend in London, Alicia (Chloë Sevigny, whose ennui and flat delivery add a touch of seen-it-all modernity).
You might need a map to follow all this, but ‘Love & Friendship’ gains from Stillman’s caustic wit. He is a perfect match for Austen, expanding on her unfinished novel (written in her late teens but not published in her lifetime) while managing to make his own droll voice speak in a vernacular hundreds of years old. His biggest coup is letting British TV actor Tom Bennett turn the minor character of Sir James into a comic feast of fatheadedness, particularly during a rambling monologue on the 12 Commandments (he’s convinced there are 12 not ten). The story is a little slight compared to ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but Beckinsale and Stillman do their inspiration proud. The result is a Jane Austen movie that’s fresh and deliciously rotten at the same time.