Mama needs a sugar daddy

Kate Beckinsale shines in adaptation of Jane Austen novella

Starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny. Directed by Whit Stillman. Cinemark 14. Rated PG.
Rated 4.0

Love & Friendship wears its Jane Austen pedigree in very sprightly fashion. Adapted by Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco) from an early Austen novella (Lady Susan), it has a strong family resemblance to the major Austen movies that have preceded it, and yet in its most distinctive elements, it’s not quite like any of them.

A key part of what’s special about the film resides in the breezily alluring performance of Kate Beckinsale in the story’s central role. Lady Susan, the title character of the original novella, is a shrewd, seductive, effortlessly charming manipulator, and Beckinsale navigates the role with a deadpan panache, sailing through the character’s contradictions and duplicities as if nothing could be more natural, and maybe even rather charming to boot.

The plot, such as it is, has Lady Susan freshly widowed and making a rare visit to the manor house of her sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwell) with the rather transparent purpose of finding herself another well-to-do husband. She has her eye on Catherine’s younger brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel), but things are soon complicated by the arrivals of Susan’s disaffected daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) and a bevy of suitors and concerned relatives.

Stillman and company keep things moving very quickly in what becomes a kind of screwball comedy of manners involving a small (and, at times, bewildering) multitude of well-to-do characters. Marriage and money are the motive forces of the plot, but dazzling wit and the utter lack of it are rambunctious partners in the frothily comic dialogue that provides the film with its most vibrant energy.

The script’s satirical view of the absurdities of class and gender in late-18th century England takes the form of a sort of mock-genteel farce. And that emerges in particularly pointed and entertaining ways through the character of Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a hilariously clueless twit who nevertheless must be tolerated because his dim-witted flirtations are backed by the comforts his wealth could provide.

Jenn Murray is an indelibly farcical caricature as the terminally hysterical Lady Lucy Manwaring, and Lochlann O’Mearáin (as the adulterous Lord Manwaring) is the very picture of shadowy arrogance and privileged deceit.

Conor MacNeill makes an appropriately goofy impression as a young curate who gets caught up in the romantic crossfire. Chloë Sevigny is on hand as Lady Susan’s friend and fellow schemer, the American-born wife of the stuffy Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry).