Whit Stillman remains true to himself -- and exhibits new mastery -- in Love & Friendship, his adaptation of Lady Susan, an impressively biting work that Jane Austen never finished. With the plotting and the epigrams in her hands, Stillman seems liberated: Never before has one of his films been so crisp, so tart, so laugh-out-loud funny. The story centers on a figure more familiar from Wharton than Austen: a brilliant, bewitching schemer (Kate Beckinsale) whose manipulation of a system in which she has little official power proves dazzling, even heroic. For all Lady Susan's glittering lies, decorum prevails, as it does in Stillman and Austen, with conflicts hidden beneath filigreed politesse. But the film itself isn't decorous in that Merchant-Ivory English-class way. Stillman lets Tom Bennett, as a doof of a suitor, sometimes push it into irresistible sketch comedy. And Beckinsale will reel through a paragraph of Austen's richest prose, and her scene partner will blink at her, overwhelmed, waiting for the CliffsNotes.
This is more heist film than romance, with Beckinsale's Susan plotting to steal that rarest jewel of all: a life in which she is comfortable, in charge and sexually fulfilled. This pits her against the drips of the landed gentry of the 1790s, but don't fear for her: She's a marvel of graceful falseness, called by her handsome first mark (Xavier Samuel) "the most accomplished flirt in all England." But she masks her true self behind impeccable diction and Beckinsalian radiance. Best of all, unlike female schemers in movie comedy going back to Stanwyck, Lady Susan never has to submit to a leading man to restore some dim idea of the natural order.