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'Love & Friendship': Jolly Good!

Screen version of Jane Austen novella is fast-paced fun

(Video) Love and Friendship Movie Trailer: Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale star in this adaptation of an early Jane Austin novella.

Rating: PG

Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Chloë Sevigny

Director: Whit Stillman

Gentle reader, mayhap you can imagine my consternation as I surveyed the audience before the auditorium lights were extinguished for Love & Friendship, the new film based on an early Jane Austen story. Alas, 'twas easy to discern the half that had been dragged to the evening kicking and screaming: 'Twas the gentlemen, furtively checking their cellphones for the latest sporting results and fidgeting with their popcorn tubs, visibly wondering whether they should dig in now or wait for the inevitable tedium of bustled women and top-hatted men to parade by.

Truth be told, sweet movie lover, your humble reviewer was among those anxious fellows, and we are happy to report that this brisk little comedy never outlives its welcome, enlivened as it is by Whit Stillman's jaunty directorial style, knowing performances and a comely cast. Also, the fact that the film breezes by in a scant 90 minutes does no damage to its cause.

Having exhausted all of Jane Austen's novels for transcription to film, the producers here turn to a novella, unpublished in the author's lifetime. It is to be expected that filmmakers will next resort to finding sport in Austen's professional correspondence, e.g., Jane Austen's To Whom It May Concern.

Kate Beckinsale, no stranger to the creations of Austen (Emma), stars as the self-involved, scandalously randy Lady Susan Vernon, a woman of past fortune who, in the wake of her nobleman husband's death and having exhausted his estate posthaste, now spends her days in the long-term company of friends and relatives, staying with each just long enough to obtain the favors of local eligible (and noneligible) gentlemen, and remaining one step ahead of their infuriated mates.

Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in 'Love and Friendship'

Courtesy of Bernard Walsh/Roadside Attractions

Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in "Love and Friendship"

Indeed, no sooner have the opening credits rolled than we witness Lady Vernon being chased from the palatial home of Lord and Lady Manwaring (handsome Lochlann O'Mearáin and mousy Jenn Murray), where it is clear she has been sampling more than the cook's bouillabaisse. This is evident in the pained expression on Lord Manwaring's face and the wild-eyed rage on that of his exercised spouse.

Forced into yet another exile, Lady Susan arrives, unannounced, at the home of her wealthy in-laws (Emma Greenwell and Justin Edwards), where she blithely sets her sights on dashing Reginald (Xavier Samuel), the lady of the house's younger brother. Inconveniently, Lady Susan's attractive daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) arrives soon after, distracting Reginald's affections.

If Jane Austen's later characters would seem fenced in by the strict customs of turn-of-the-19th-century society, Lady Susan appears gleefully disposed to worming her way between the pickets. Beneath her glorious smile and sparkling eyes, Miss Beckinsale emits a clear sense that her character is not only fully in control of Plan A, but concurrently beetling away at Plan B and, we suspect, subsequent plans up to and including Zed. Hers is a masterful performance, one that should find favor among the parties that present awards for matters cinematic come the winter of this year.

Likewise, her fellow players are splendid from start to finish, particularly Chloë Sevigny as Lady Vernon's American-born friend and confidante — though we doubt that in the decades following the American Revolution residents of the former Colonies swiftly adopted accents akin to those of 20th-century Teamsters.

At film's end, as the lights rose on the assemblage, the men and women seemed engaged in animated, jovial conversation regarding the event. Even as the crowd spilled into the foyer, the late cricket scores went utterly unchecked.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.