Bosoms heave, corsets strain and venomous one-liners land with marksman-like precision in Whit Stillman’s delicious period romantic comedy, based on Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan.
The acclaimed New York-born writer-director polishes a very British tale of stifled emotions and rigid etiquette to a glorious lustre.
Adultery, deception and intrigue abound in the rarefied circles of the late 18th century, spun to perfection by a widow with a gift for scandalous suggestion if it emboldens her social standing or perhaps lands her a rich, old and undemanding husband.
The lead character’s complete lack of scruples in a world where appearances are everything and rumour can scorch a lady’s reputation beyond repair is a delight to behold.
She wrecks romances and undermines friendships with nary a flicker of concern for her unsuspecting victims, observing that “facts are horrid things” as she stacks one tiny fib atop another, certain that they will never fall.
Stillman gifts this peach of a role to Kate Beckinsale and she savours ever acid-laced bon mot with relish.
Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale) is concerned about the rumours that have begun to circulate about her relationship with smitten suitor Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain).
She seeks refuge with her late husband’s family on their vast estate.
Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) is blind to Lady Susan’s capacity for mayhem, but his wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), is less trusting, especially when their house guest charms her handsome younger brother, Reginald (Xavier Samuel).
Needless to say, Reginald’s parents (James Fleet, Jemma Redgrave) are horrified by the prospect of their son fraternising with a minx.
Complicating matters, Lady Susan must find a wealthy suitor for her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and she resolves to force a love match with Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).
Lady Susan’s trusted confidante in tangled affairs of the heart is the equally unshockable Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who has burdened herself with an older husband (Stephen Fry).
“He’s too old to be governable, too young to die,” admonishes Lady Susan.
As the scheming socialite’s web of lies unravels, she must think quickly on her feet to maintain her standing with her cadre of ardent supporters.
Love & Friendship is a rare tonic.
Period detail and costumes are impeccable, but it is Stillman’s riotous reinvention of Austen’s little-known novella that glitters brightest.
Beckinsale oozes butter-wouldn’t-melt sweetness as she leaves desolation in her bustled wake, running rings around the male of the species by exploiting her sex’s bountiful charms.
Every back-handed compliment lands like a sharp slap to the chops, eliciting so much laughter in some scenes that a couple of zinging one-liners are lost in our mounting delirium.
A perfect excuse to savour a second helping.
It would be rude not to.