Over 25 years and a handful of minor classics, writer-director Whit Stillman has distilled and modernized the spirit of Jane Austen so ably that it’s a wonder he has taken so long to go to the source. “Love & Friendship” is based on an early, lesser-known novella by the maid of Hampshire, but it has the wise, worldly wit of Stillman’s “Metropolitan” (1990), “Barcelona” (1994), and “The Last Days of Disco” (1998) — movies in which streams of glittering chatter course over riverbeds of joy and pain. It’s a film true to both the adaptor and the adapted, and it’s wonderful.
“Lady Susan” was written as a series of letters when Austen was still shy of 20; its heroine is unusual for this author in that she’s something of a villain. As played with sly fire by Kate Beckinsale, Lady Susan Vernon is closer to a Restoration Era minx than a proper Regency gentrywoman. Recently widowed of an older and unloved husband, Lady Susan is on the prowl for a new catch through the drawing rooms of London and the country mansions of the aristocracy. She’s a notorious scandal, but she has more than enough beauty and charm to compensate.
And she has prospects, even though most of them don’t know it yet. There’s the rakish Lord Mainwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin), but he’s inconveniently married. There’s the profoundly idiotic Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) — more about him later. And there’s the young and ardent Reginald De Courcy, the brother-in-law of Lady Susan’s brother-in-law, who’s played by Xavier Samuel in what can only be called a spirit of Early Firth.
To add to the confusion, Lady Susan has a teenage daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), gentle, pure-hearted, and good. Her mother has no idea what to make of her. “Love & Friendship” introduces all these characters with droll visual cameos at the start and then proceeds to play mix-and-match. Reginald is dazzled by Lady Susan — to the diplomatic horror of his family — but is the daughter his true partner in temperament and morals? Sir James is besotted with Frederica, but his title, riches, and general stupidity make him attractive to the mother as well.
Sniping from the sidelines is Lady Susan’s closest confidante, Alicia Johnson (Chlöe Sevigny), a visiting American whose stuffy husband (the great Stephen Fry) is worried that she’s spending too much time with the temptress and who keeps threatening to pack her back to the wilds of Connecticut. (“You could be scalped!” cries Lady Susan.)
The novella brought us into the minds of these characters through the letters they wrote; “Love & Friendship,” by contrast, dramatizes their interactions. More properly, Stillman comedicizes them, fascinated by the way true intent can be expressed, gleaned, implied, or end-run through the polite clockwork of social conversation. Because so little can be directly said in Austen’s universe, the art and endless pleasure comes from the ways in which people speak their minds and hearts indirectly, until such time as they can no longer box up their emotions and all is revealed in a climactic blurt — Darcy declaring his love for Elizabeth in “Pride and Prejudice” being the classic example.
So “Love & Friendship” is a film to make an action fan tear his or her hair out; it’s all walking and talking. But what talking! Of her friend Alicia, Susan says, “She has none of the uncouthness one expects of Americans but all of the candor”; of Alicia’s husband, she murmurs sympathetically, “too old to be governable, too young to die.” Beckinsale rises to a splendid occasion, making us privy to Lady Susan’s manipulations while presenting a glamorous front that blinds all of the men. The women, of course, see everything.
The performances are uniformly excellent, but pride of place goes to Bennett’s Sir James, an upper class twit of Pythonesque proportions. Rarely has a character this moronic been this happy. Pushing his vegetables around a plate, Sir James crows, “Tiny green balls! What do you call them?” (“Peas,” replies a perplexed Reginald.)
“Love & Friendship” accomplishes miracles on a meager budget; only the makeup seems out of place every so often, with Beckinsale looking unaccountably tan for a Regency aristocrat. The film ends, too, not with an Austenesque bang — order restored and all in its place — but with a reasonably satisfying whimper. Stillman is less interested in punishing the bad here than in honoring the good. That’s more than good enough.
★ ★ ★ ½
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
Written and directed by Whit Stillman, based on a novella by Jane Austen. Starring Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Chlöe Sevigny, Tom Bennett. Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, West Newton. 92 minutes. PG (thematic elements, distressed crumpets).
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.