In 1790s England, rumours about the widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) and her subsequent romantic dalliances have been circulating through high society. As a result of this, she and her daughter Frederica move in with her in-laws, the Lord and Lady Manwaring, in order to seek temporary respite. Of course, this doesn’t stop her from trying to find husbands for Frederica and herself, among other schemes.
It’s only natural that writer-director Whit Stillman would eventually take on a Jane Austen adaptation, as his breakout debut feature, Metropolitan, was essentially a contemporary homage to the writings of the classic author. And in zeroing in on Austen’s short novel Lady Susan, a work that was left somewhat unfinished and only published posthumously, he has found the perfect material to mesh his distinct voice with.
By far one of the most explicitly funny Austen adaptations, Love & Friendship thrives on the strength of its central character. Lady Susan is cunning and manipulative as she wreaks social havoc among her relatives and their acquaintances, yet all the while, she remains immensely likeable. Beckinsale plays this dichotomy well, reminding us of the comic gifts she had in her earlier collaboration with Stillman, The Last Days of Disco, before she became an action star. And while she takes the lead, Stillman surrounds her with game supporting players, including Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, and British comedian Tom Bennett, whose hilarious turn as the bumbling potential suitor for Frederica should become one of the breakout comic turns of the year.
As he’s done throughout his career, Stillman alternately mocks and celebrates bourgeois upper class society. He may cut these self-satisfied characters down from time to time but the affection that he has for them still shines through. As a master in cinematic comedy of manners, he knows just how to push every gossipy, socially awkward interaction for maximum laughs. His filmic take on Austen is the freshest one in quite some time. Lady Susan Vernon herself wouldn’t have it any other way.