The austerity of Austen and the wit of Whit

The widowed but impoverished Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), the main character of Love & Friendship, doesn’t so much depend on the kindness of strangers as the kindness of acquaintances, friends and in-laws – and she repeatedly repays such altruism with condescension, manipulation and treachery.

The setting is late-18 th century England, and we’re definitely in Jane Austen territory. Love & Friendship, which marks filmmaker Whit Stillman’s first feature in four years and only his fifth since his 1990 debut Metropolitan (for which he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay), is based on Austen’s novella Lady Susan, which was written in 1794 but not published until 1871, over 50 years after her death.

The film, elegant and genteel in its (still-sharp) approach to deflating the iron-cast social structure of the period, adheres to the original text while comfortably accommodating Stillman’s droll, wry sensibilities in this feature-length expansion, and in Lady Susan Beckinsale has found one of her richest roles to date, one that she plays to the hilt.

There’s an attractive and appealing cast on hand, including Emma Greenwell (as Lady Susan’s understandably resentful daughter), Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, James Fleet, Jemma Redgrave and Tom Bennett, who steals many a scene as the dim but likable Sir James Martin, but this is Beckinsale’s show all the way.

Those who prefer the actress wearing skin-tight black leather battling werewolves and vampires (in the Underworld franchise) should be made aware that the period costumes look mighty fetching indeed on Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny (with whom she co-starred in Stillman’s 1998 comedy The Last Days of Disco), who plays Alicia Johnson, the American expatriate who believes every word her best friend Lady Susan tells her – even when all evidence points to the contrary. Alicia’s husband, identified only as “Mr. Johnson,” is played by the delightful Stephen Fry, who alas has only a few precious seconds (and lines of dialogue) onscreen.

Love & Friendship opens Friday

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