When Jane Austen was very young, she scribbled the novella “Lady Susan,” an archly observant satire of 18th century epistolary novels in the form of letters from the hyper-articulate heroine.
It’s perfectly suited for writer/director Whit Stillman (“Damsels in Distress,” “Last Days of Disco,” “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona”), who has demonstrated a fondness for the witty banter that harks back to the Restoration comedy of manners.
So it’s not surprising that Stillman uses clever captions to introduce his large “Dramatis Personae,” characters from the landed English gentry.
The plot revolves around the devious manipulations of beautiful, recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (vivacious Kate Beckinsale) who, admittedly, has “no money and no husband.”
But she does have a trusted confidante/conspirator, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), an American exile married to an imperious aristocrat (Stephen Fry), who threatens to ship her back to the wilds of Connecticut if she sides with “the most accomplished flirt in all England.”
Arriving at Churchill, the lavish country estate of her late husband’s brother Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wary wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), scheming Lady Susan immediately beguiles Catherine’s wealthy younger brother, Reginald DeCourcey (Xavier Samuel, channeling a young Hugh Grant). But before she can explore her own options, narcissistic Lady Susan must marry off her teenage daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who spurns the proposal of obliging Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) simply because he’s a blithering idiot or, as they put it, “a bit of a rattle.”
Diverse emotional entanglements abound, despite strict societal rules regarding acceptable behavior. One husband is deliciously dismissed as “too old to be governable, too young to die,” a hapless wife skewered with “If she were going to be jealous, she never should have married such a charming man.”
And so it goes until the surprisingly bawdy conclusion. Filming in Ireland, cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout, production designer Anna Rackard and costumer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh make the most of the exquisitely elegant settings.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Love and Friendship” is a snappy, snarky 7, appealing primarily to women and indefatigable Austen fans.