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Movie review: Beckinsale showcases classic Austen wit in sharp, funny 'Love and Friendship'
Whit Stillman on the set of Love & Friendship." - photo by Josh Terry
LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP 3 stars Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Lochlann O'Mearain; PG (thematic elements); in general release

Love and Friendship is about a woman who understands neither love nor friendship. Based on a Jane Austen novella called Lady Susan, it features actress Kate Beckinsale in a savage takedown of the 18th-century British aristocracy.

The film opens with a barrage of character introductions and enough contextual information to leave you tempted to take notes. But once things settle in, Love and Friendship is a pretty straightforward film to follow.

The plot is built around the machinations of Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale), a widow infamous for her serial flirtations with married and unmarried men and her dubious manipulations of everyone else. She doesnt have money so much as she manages to attach herself to others of means, thus maintaining enviable and resented status in the community.

Her one true friend is Alicia Johnson (Chlo Sevigny), an American transplant in a marriage of convenience to Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry). Alicia has a checkered past of her own and lives in constant fear of being sent back to America.

The story gets rolling as Susan flees the estate of the Manwarings, where she has been staying since the death of her husband. Leaving broken hearts and shaking fists in her wake, she heads for the home of her sister-in-law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), where she takes up a reluctant refuge.

Susan isnt all that impressed with Catherines comparatively modest estate, but she can tolerate mediocre accommodations more than criticism. So when she catches Catherines brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel) gossiping about her reputation, she resolves to teach them a lesson. Her plan? Tie poor Reginald up in her feminine wiles and show him whos in charge.

But things get a little more complicated when Susans young daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) gets expelled from her private school and returns to her mothers side. Frederica is more age-appropriate for Reginald, not to mention a kind human being, and renders her mother into an 18th-century Mrs. Robinson.

Things get even more fun from here as director Whit Stillman skillfully weaves the threads of a story that is more witty than audiences might expect. Best of all is a scene-stealing turn from Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin, a wealthy buffoon with eyes for Frederica who cant string a complete sentence together without projecting shockwaves of awkwardness. Love and Friendship is worth a nod for his presence alone.

But even if Bennett gets the most laughs, this is Beckinsales show, and her performance as Susan is a perfect fit for Austens caustic British wit. In addition to The Graduates Mrs. Robinson, her character also seems to echo Cate Blanchetts Oscar-winning title character in Woody Allens Blue Jasmine, and even Wilfrid Brambells hilarious performance as Paul McCartneys mixer grandfather in 1964s A Hard Days Night.

Love and Friendship also packs a strong visual appeal, especially to fans of period pieces. Everything from the regal settings to the never-ending line of ornate costumes reveals the productions attention to detail. The film lives almost exclusively in a world of luxury, which is compelling when you consider how critical Austens story is of their society.

Male audiences may cringe at the thought of getting dragged to another Jane Austen adaptation, but in this case, Love and Friendship carries enough character and wit to keep everyone entertained.

Love and Friendship is rated PG for some thematic elements; running time: 92 minutes.
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