Jane Austen, who used dialogue as a veil that reveals and conceals, and writer-director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan), with his love for the elegant pensee, are such an obvious match that you wonder why it took them this long to get together. Love & Friendship, Stillman's acerbic adaptation of the Austen novella Lady Susan, gets closer to the author's snap and spirit than most of her film adaptations of recent decades. The film is stately, but not in that luxe cream-coloured showroom way; the rooms are dark-toned, bathed in shadow. And the people who move in and out of them proclaim their agendas with a brittle deviousness that's more Dangerous Liaisons than Emma. That's the film's appeal, but also its challenge: Love & Friendship is not a romantic comedy dressed in breeches and ruffles. It could just as well have been called Money & Coercion. It taps into the side of Austen that saw love as something that many - if not most - women simply couldn't afford.
The central character is Lady Susan Vernon Martin, a widow of diminishing means played with high duplicitous verve by Kate Beckinsale. Lady Susan is a manipulator of such tart-tongued intricacy that when she's on screen, you spend half the time enjoying her amoral flippancy and the other half trying to figure out what exactly it is she's after. Lady Susan arrives at Churchill, the country mansion of her in-laws, where her first task is to deceptively, flirtatiously dispel any notion that she is a deceptive flirt.
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