Based on an early novella by Jane Austen, the movie “Love and Friendship” retools the beloved 18th century author’s work. It plays this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center and Edgartown Cinemas.
Director Whit Stillman (“Metropolitan,” “Barcelona”) retains the costumes, settings, and social conundrums of classic Austen, at the same time slyly undercutting the flowery sentimentality of so many movie and television versions of Austen. Elegant costumes often appear a shade unkempt, and the lower classes show up raking branches or fixing sidewalks as a reminder of the larger world. In another brief real-world bit, a carriage nearly backs into a couple passing on foot. All is not perfect in this Austenland.
Lady Susan, played with wit and underhanded charm by Kate Beckinsale (“Absolute Anything”), heads the social set as an impoverished widow who survives by hopping from the estate of one family member or friend to the next. She has built a reputation as a world-class flirt, seductive to most gentlemen and infuriating to their ladies. High on Lady Susan’s list of hapless hosts are her brother- and sister-in-law, Charles and Catherine Vernon (Justin Edwards and Emma Greenwell). Listening to Lady Susan dance conversational circles around friends and relatives is a wonder. No matter what dilemma threatens to upend her self-serving plans, she finds a way to turn things around to her benefit. Her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) runs away from school, shows up at the Vernons’, and rejects her mother’s attempts to marry her to the idiotic but filthy rich Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). In these scenes, the director perfectly matches Susan’s verbal acuity with Sir James’s buffoonish verbosity.
Chloe Sevigny plays Susan’s American best friend and foil, Alicia Johnson. She is the only weak link in this cast of clever characters, wasted as no more than a supportive, balloon-bosomed listener to Lady Susan’s machinations. Alicia’s husband (Stephen Fry) is one of the few men who sees through Lady Susan, and he warns his wife he’ll send her back to her native Connecticut if she continues to socialize with her friend. Not that Alicia listens to him.
Catherine Vernon’s handsome younger brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) falls easily for Lady Susan’s charms, much to his sister’s distress. In another subplot that remains a little underdeveloped, Lady Susan conducts a secret liaison with the married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin), resulting in an unexpected event. His wife Lady Lucy (Jenn Murray) is on to Lady Susan’s machinations, and protests bitterly.
By the end of “Love and Friendship,” director Stillman deftly ties up all the loose ends. Austen fans and all moviegoers will enjoy this frothy romantic comedy.