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Indie icon Whit Stillman takes on Jane Austen with the droll, deviously charming 'Love & Friendship'

Filmmaker Whit Stillman has been dropping Jane Austen’s name since his first movie, “Metropolitan,” the 1990 film that tracked the social mores of a group of Park Avenue preppies (the children of the UHB -- the "urban haute bourgeoisie”) in much the same way Austen slyly cataloged the sensibility of the British privileged class in the early 19th century.

So it’s not surprising that Stillman has finally made a full-fledged Austen adaptation, “Love & Friendship,” taking the author’s early epistolary novella (usually referred to as “Lady Susan,” published posthumously in 1871) and infusing it with his own droll, mocking spirit and expert way of looking behind societal facades.

“Love & Friendship” more than delivers on the comedy of manners front, but it’s also a very funny, unapologetic portrait of a diabolically clever woman, the aforementioned Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), described, by her sister-in-law, as both a “genius of an evil kind” and a “serpent in Eden’s garden.”

But, you know, that’s just, like, her opinion, man. And even if it does contain more than a kernel of truth, Lady Susan would probably counter with a pithy rejoinder, something along the lines that “facts are horrid things.” The woman can justify anything.

"Love & Friendship" is, first and foremost, a master class on the art of comic timing, in its filmmaking and acting. Stillman sets the sly tone immediately, introducing his numerous characters with a string of portraits, their names and defining characteristics written out in title cards. Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearain), for example, is said to be a “divinely attractive man.” Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), meanwhile, is labeled “a bit of a rattle.” (More on him later.)

The widowed Lady Susan, when we first meet her, is swiftly leaving the Langford estate (owned by the divinely attractive and inconveniently married Lord Manwaring) and taking up residence with her in-laws. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Austen's world knows that without a husband, Lady Susan's prospects are uncertain. Well ... they'd be iffy for most women. Lady Susan advocates a take-no-prisoners approach to financial security.

Her plan, initially, is to marry Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), the handsome, younger brother of Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), the sister-in-law who sees Susan with clear eyes. Success seems inevitable until Lady Susan's daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), arrives at the estate, having run away from school. A master improviser, Susan proposes to marry off Frederica to the available Sir James Martin, a ridiculous man who delights in discovering the pleasure of eating peas or "tiny green balls," as he calls the "novelty vegetable."

Frederica's dilemma would be the focus of most Austen adaptations. Poor girl. Forced to marry for convenience instead of finding her true love. Here, she's portrayed as a whiny antagonist, with her mother regarding her with this verbal swipe: "Children. Of course, when they're small, there's a sweetness that compensates for the dreadfulness that comes after."

Beckinsale delivers the line with the delicious satisfaction of a self-aware woman confident that she's always one step ahead of everyone else. Her one equal is her good friend, an American, Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), with whom she shares her schemes. Like Lady Susan, Mrs. Johnson sees marriage as a means to an end, eternally hoping for her respectable husband's (Stephen Fry) demise and disappointed when it doesn't come.

“Let Mr. Johnson’s next gouty attack end more favorably,” Lady Susan says, consoling her friend. On another occasion, she laments that Mr. Johnson is "too old to be governable, too young to die."

"Love & Friendship" reunites Beckinsale and Sevigny with Stillman, 18 years after they made "The Last Days of Disco" together. In the intervening time, Beckinsale played a werewolf-hating vampire in the "Underworld" series and starred in a number of forgettable B-movies, few hinting at the comic ability she displays here. Scan the memory banks though and you might remember that she played Emma, the self-assured title character in a fine 1996 Jane Austen adaptation for British television. (Another "Emma," starring Gwyneth Paltrow, also came out that year. Beckinsale's is better.)

For Beckinsale, it helps to be working with a filmmaker so clearly enjoying the material. Stillman takes the characters, the plot and the perfectly worded sentences in Austen's novella and revises and shapes them into a work that now feels complete. Every moment in the film feels fully realized, down to what I'd imagine to be the endless ellipses in any one of Sir James Martin's long-winded attempts at courting favor. ("I stand corrected," the gentleman says on one of these occasions. Pause. "It happens a lot.")

Stillman hasn't made many movies. "Love & Friendship" is just his fifth film in more than a quarter century of work, but it hasn't been for lack of trying. After this triumph, he should have plenty of new suitors.

glenn.whipp@latimes.com

'Love & Friendship'

MPAA rating: PG for some thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: The Landmark in West Los Angeles, Arclight Hollywood

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