It shouldnâ€™t come as a shock that Jane Austen and Whit Stillman are a match made in heaven. His films, starting with 1990â€™s â€śMetropolitan,â€ť have chronicled the lives of East Coast preppies in the same arch, comedy-of-manners style as Austenâ€™s novels. The ins and outs of romantic scheming, clever conversation for its own sake, and societal maneuvering are depicted with tongue ever so slightly in cheek.
Now heâ€™s actually adapted one of her works, wisely avoiding the iconic, oft-filmed books for the posthumously published short novel â€śLady Susan.â€ť The movieâ€™s more conventionally Austen-esque title, â€śLove & Friendship,â€ť is taken from another unpublished story, one that Austen wrote as a teenager.
In any case, the film is a delight. Stillman brings the perfect level of modern snark to a tale centering on one of the most delightfully narcissistic, hilariously amoral women youâ€™ll find in an 18th-century British costume drama. That would be the unstoppable Lady Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), recently widowed, whose flirtatious (and then some) reputation precedes her when she arrives without warning to stay with her deceased husbandâ€™s brother (Justin Edwards) and his wife (Emma Greenwell).
Lady Vernon is on the prowl, and her target is her sister-in-lawâ€™s eligible younger brother (Xavier Samuel). But when daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), having absconded from boarding school, arrives on the scene, Lady Vernon may have some unexpected competition on her hands. In response, she tries to set the poor girl up with a wealthy but outrageously stupid fellow named Sir James Martin and played by Tom Bennett in a scene-stealing, uproarious performance.
Itâ€™s a good thing Bennetâ€™s there to balance the scales, because otherwise Beckinsaleâ€™s magnificent, maleficent radiance might completely blot out the rest of the cast. Itâ€™s been almost 25 years since she lit up the screen in Kenneth Branaghâ€™s â€śMuch Ado About Nothing,â€ť and her performance here is an enormous rebound after years of slogging through forgettable action and sci-fi flicks. Sheâ€™s got the facility with tongue-tripping dialogue and the swanlike neck to rock these sorts of smart costume pictures, so why she continues to waste her time on the likes of â€śContrabandâ€ť and the â€śTotal Recallâ€ť remake is beyond me. (Although the answer probably has something to do with the lack of decent-paying, well-written female rolesâ€¦)
Beckinsale also gets a chance to reunite with her co-star from Stillmanâ€™s 1998 film â€śThe Last Days of Disco,â€ť Chloe Sevigny, who plays Lady Vernonâ€™s American-abroad, equally devious wingwoman. Sevigny doesnâ€™t negotiate the cascading verbiage as well as the Brits around her, but she serves nicely as a smirking audience surrogate. Stephen Fry, always welcome on screen, plays her husband.
For a relatively low-budget film, â€śLove & Friendshipâ€ť looks great and uses its locations to good effect. The costumes are stunning, especially, of course, Lady Vernonâ€™s, and the production design is impeccable. The key to the movieâ€™s success, though, is the hybridized wit of Austen and Stillman, something that should make this a broadly appealing crowd-pleaser even in the season of cinematic bombast. Itâ€™s a story about hilariously desperate quests for matrimony, brought to life by an artistic marriage that was clearly meant to be.
(93 minutes, rated PG, opens Friday, May 27 at Regal Fox Tower and Bridgeport Village) GRADE: A-