Kate Beckinsale in 'Love and Friendship'
Kate Beckinsale in 'Love and Friendship'

Jane Austen is a doughty girl. On screen she survives monochromatic Masterpiece Theatre reverence, which tries to make her Lady Jane Grey. She survived Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which almost made her Calamity Jane. Before seeing it I quaked at the thought of Love & Friendship, in which American filmmaker Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) has a go at Lady Susan, Austen’s early, barely read epistolary novel.

No need for panic. The film is wonderful. Stillman swings through the jungle of dangers saying “Me Tarzan, you Jane”: he makes every moment, comical or poignant, seem fresh and even primal. Here are real people on screen, human animals with loveable, ludicrous, feral, feeling instincts. Austen’s novels are about survival after all — the survival of spirit and individuality in a social world largely dressed to repress.

Kate Beckinsale plays the heroine Lady Susan Vernon, a newly widowed society vamp, with brittle relish. As she shuttles between her London home and the landed estates grazed by eligible beaux, she is a big game hunter with a designer smile, hovering between smirk and simper depending on social requirement.

Screenwriter-director Stillman plucks the best feathers from the novel’s letters, and supplies some of his own, to fill the script with goose-down guffaws. Social graces thrive, but so do quirks of lunacy. Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet are wonderful as the aged (grand)parents, forever at crossed verbal swords. Justin Edwards is a tub of dim, comical benignity as brother-in-law to one prospective victim-bridegroom (Xavier Samuel), while Lady Susan’s other male prey is even dimmer and, in Tom Bennett’s performance, the glory of the show.

Jumping into big-screen Austen from small-screen British sitcom (PhoneShop), Bennett vindicates Stillman’s make-it-modern style. He can’t deliver a speech without going into a gauche verbal gallop accompanied by occasional whinnies of nervous or self-admiring laughter. He nearly tumbles neck-and-crop whenever attempting an overextended conversational conceit — like his quest for a “church” and a “hill” at Churchill House — and he ends up falling at the Becher’s Brook of betrothal to a fortune hunter.

Stillman himself being only human, Love & Friendship stumbles now and then. Did we need all that Haydn/Mozart-era easy listening on the soundtrack? It’s like Muzak in the elevator of time: “Third floor: dynastic matchmaking, irony, Regency costumes.” One cast member (no names) is horribly at sea groping for an Austen style, even semi-mod. And captioned establishing shots at each change of location — didn’t they go out with town criers? Never mind. Most of this film is a joy. It’s Plain Jane compared to some, but its deadpan wit and poker-faced comic naturalism come to seem the ideal to which all Austen cinema should aspire.

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