Whit Stillman has made just five films since his 1990 debut Metropolitan, but those movies, despite being set in various countries and time periods, are remarkably consistent in theme. Fascinated by privilege, he has chronicled the lives of young, beautiful rich people in art house movies like “Barcelona,” “The Last Days of Disco” and “Damsels in Distress.”
His latest film, “Love & Friendship,” fits snugly beside the others. Based on the Jane Austen novella “Lady Susan” it is places the action in the 1790s, but the subversive glimpse at upper class society is pure Stillman.
Kate Beckinsale is Lady Susan Vernon, a broke, recently widowed aristocrat whose scandalous behaviour in London has whittled down opportunities for social advancement for her and her daughter Federica (Morfydd Clark). “We don’t live,” she says, “we visit, entirely at the convenience of our relatives.” An acid-tongued schemer, Lady Susan survives on the kindness of her former sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell). Opening the doors of her country estate to Susan only exposes the hostess to the widow’s Machiavellian dealings, the attempted seduction of Catherine’s brother Reginald de Courcy (Xavier Samuel) and a plan to marry off Frederica to the wealthy but di-witted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).
“Love & Friendship” is a comedy of manipulation and ill-manners that must be the funniest Austen adaptation since “Clueless.” Stillman regular Beckinsale (she appeared in “Last Days of Disco”) is letter perfect as the seductively icy, pennilessly haughty Lady Susan, “the most accomplished flirt in England.” Rattling off the breezy dialogue with ease, she’s an anti-heroine who at one point admonishes a man for approaching her on the street, threatening to have him whipped if he says another word. “I know him well,” she says to her American confidante Alicia (Chloe Sevigny, another “The Last Days of Disco” alum), “I would never speak to a stranger like that.” She’s fantastically unrepentant, a paragon of self-absorption who looks down on everyone.
A uniformly strong cast—including the scene stealing Tom Bennett whop hands in one of the great comedic performances of the year—help Stillman bring the world to life. The set decoration and costuming is very “Masterpiece Theatre,” but the feeling of the piece is very modern.