Love & Friendship Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Chloë Sevigny. Directed by Whit Stillman. Rated PG. Opens Friday in select theaters.
When writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) first announced that he would be adapting an early Jane Austen work, it was hailed as the perfect combination of filmmaker and subject matter, but even longtime Stillman fans might not have anticipated how perfectly suited his sensibility would be for the material. It helps that the source here is Austen’s Lady Susan, a novella that went unpublished until after her death and has a much more caustic tone than her more well-known stories.
Retitled Love & Friendship, Stillman’s adaptation stars Kate Beckinsale, who gives her best performance in years as Lady Susan Vernon, a beautiful and self-absorbed high-society widow whose favorite pastime is playing with others’ affections. Lady Susan is essentially a sociopath, but she’s extremely entertaining to watch, and Stillman’s screenplay is full of bone-dry humor and some hilarious one-liners. It’s to Stillman’s credit that the line between Austen’s work and his own is never entirely clear, and he parodies the rigid formalism of Austen’s era without any present-day condescension. Lady Susan’s scheming is as much a response to the time period’s limited options for women as it is a product of her own toxic personality. Either way, it’s a delight, making for a cheerfully cynical romantic comedy in which the romantic lead is also the villain—and still somehow finds her way to a happy ending.