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With: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark, Emma Greenwell, Tom Bennett, James Fleet, Jemma Redgrave, Justin Edwards, Jenn Murray, Stephen Fry, Chloe Sevigny
Written by: Whit Stillman, based on a novella by Jane Austen
Directed by: Whit Stillman
MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements
Running Time: 92
Date: 05/13/2016

Love & Friendship (2016)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Power of 'Love'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Fresh from its opening night appearance at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship arrives in Bay Area theaters and provides a welcome break from this sluggish movie season.

In the 1990s, studios and filmmakers went crazy adapting to the screen Jane Austen's six novels, published between 1811 and 1818, including a TV miniseries of Emma, starring Kate Beckinsale.

Now, twenty years later, Ms. Beckinsale — who has hardly aged a day — returns to Austen territory. She plays perhaps the author's nastiest and funniest character, Lady Susan, who comes from a novella that, even with all that Austenmania, has never been adapted to film before.

Lady Susan is presumed to have been written when Austen was a teen, and published posthumously. But this is no stodgy museum piece. In adapting it to the screen, writer/director Whit Stillman comes closer to something personal than many of those previous, polite Austen movies.

This is because Stillman's previous four films, from his Oscar-nominated debut Metropolitan (1990) to the charming Damsels in Distress (2011), have already dealt with the problems of the upper-crust, expressed largely through funny, hyper-educated dialogue.

So the literary-cinematic marriage between Stillman and Austen is bracingly appropriate.

The story has Beckinsale's recently-widowed Lady Susan inviting herself to visit with her brother's family at their country estate in Churchill.

She begins to flirt with her sister-in-law's younger brother, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), in the hopes of landing a financially-secure new husband.

But Susan's grown daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) turns up, having run away from school. To protect her own claim, Susan tries to set up Frederica with the doltish, jabbering Sir James (Tom Bennett).

Occasionally, Susan reports on her progress — in a viciously hilarious way — to her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny); Beckinsale and Sevigny already have a history, reunited from their lead roles in Stillman's The Last Days of Disco (1998).

It's not to much of a stretch to suggest that Beckinsale has her finest role here, wicked and clever and sexy, eclipsing even Cold Comfort Farm or Snow Angels (apologies to Underworld fans).

She even effortlessly handles some incredible scene-stealing by Bennett, who gives Sir James a particular brand of confident stupidity that's positively mesmerizing.

Behind the camera, Stillman is confident and playful, providing irreverent, freeze-frame introductions to the characters, reveling in airy, beautiful design and cinematography, and eschewing literary stuffiness.

Austen purists can complain, but at least Love & Friendship happily supplants this year's Pride & Prejudice & Zombies in the memory.

Sony Pictures Classics released a simple, but great-looking Blu-ray edition. When I saw the film in the theater (in the balcony of a rather echo-y auditorium), I found that I missed some of the dialogue; now there are subtitles to fill in the blanks. The only extra is a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.

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