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Kate Beckinsale, Tom Bennett

Kate Beckinsale, Tom Bennett

“LOVE & FRIENDSHIP” ┬áMy rating: B

92 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Cinematic evil has a new name…thanks to the unexpected alliance of Jane Austen and Whit Stillman.

Well, maybe not so unexpected. Stillman’s comedies of manners (“Metropolitan,” “Damsels in Distress”) have always shared Austen’s concerns with social status and ┬áromantic self-fulfillment while casting a satirical eye on human foible.

It’s just that this time Stillman has gone to the source and, for my money, come up with the best film of his career.

“Love & Friendship” is based on Austen’s unfinished novel Lady Susan, which was not published until 100 years after her death. It is largely unknown even to fans of her masterpieces, Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility, largely because it is unbelieveably dark, with a “heroine” who would be repulsive if she didn’t so effectively couch her sociopathy in Georgian good manners.

One of Austen’s big topics — the necessity of single ladies finding suitable mates — is once again explored, but this time without a shred of romance. All is calculation, subterfuge and scheming.

The recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (a sensational Kate Beckinsale) is cast adrift without a man or the money to continue her highfalutin’ lifestyle. About all she has going for her is reputation for desirability and borderline scandalous behavior — that and the ability to charm her way past weaker minds (which in her reckoning means the rest of mankind).

As “Love & Friendship” begins (and the title is supremely ironic), Lady Susan pays a visit to her sister-in-law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell) and her kindly, impossibly thick husband (Justin Edwards). There’s never a question of thanking her moneyed in-laws for putting her up. Lady Susan operates on the principle that as a special person this simply is her due.

Any discussion of her paying her way, she observes, “would be offensive to us both.”

Her agenda — shared only with her friend and co-conspirator, the American Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) — is to find suitable mates both for herself and for her mousey daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who is about to be thrown out of her ritzy boarding school.

 

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