Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman's brisk, bustling, and wonderfully comic reworking of a posthumously published Jane Austen novella, comes with all the trappings of the Austen oeuvre: gossipy lords and ladies, grand country houses, splendid 18th-century garb, obsequious servants transporting earthshaking missives hither and yon, and strong-willed young women struggling, if ever so delicately, against the rigid social dictums of the day.

But one of the things that distinguishes Love & Friendship from the multitude of Austen adaptations - the worthy and the less so - is its heroine. Lady Susan Vernon, a widow of devilish charms, is as frank and fearless a character as Austen ever imagined.

As played by a terrific Kate Beckinsale - who channeled a similar spirit in Stillman's more contemporary period piece, The Last Days of Disco - Lady Susan is scheming, manipulative, and man-hungry. She is "the most accomplished flirt in all of England," we are told, and she goes about her business with insouciance, with wiles.

And there is much business to go about. She has a pesky daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who has fled boarding school and who is in need of unloading onto a wealthy bachelor for a marriage that will ensure Frederica's well-being and station in life - and get her out of her mother's hair (voluminous ringlets, often hatted).

The prime candidate: Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a right "rattle" and buffoon. Frederica can barely keep from cringing in the company of this pea-brain. (Bennett is hilarious - his enthusiastic idiocy practically steals the show. And, yes, there is a dinner scene where he marvels at the little green peas on his plate.)

There is the matter, too, of a new husband for Lady Susan herself. The dashing Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin) is already spoken for - wed, in fact - although that does not deter him, nor her, from sharing some clandestine intimacies.

Bringing her effects - and her unpaid handmaiden, whom she introduces as a friend - Lady Susan arrives at Churchill, the country estate of her brother-in-law Charles (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenhill). It is there that Catherine's brother, Sir Reginald DeCourcy (a Colin Firth-ian Xavier Samuel), meets Lady Susan, taking long walks by her side and falling under her spell.

Now and then, as urgency and plot machinations demand, Lady Susan hies to London where she confides to her dear friend, the American Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny, also a veteran of Stillman's The Last Days of Disco).

Having trouble tracking all this? (That's hardly the half of it.) There is so much plot, so many tricky relationships, that Stillman supplies title cards at the outset to introduce his cast of characters and their respective entanglements.

With stately music (harp and strings and piano forte) and stately gardens (historic Ireland subbing for historic Britain), Love & Friendship is a comedy of manners, and manors, and more. It's a comedy of empowerment and sexual politics, dressed up in the best Austen finery.



Love & Friendship

Three stars (Out of four stars)

Directed by Whit Stillman. With Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Tom Bennett, and Morfydd Clark. Distributed by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.

Running time: 1 hour, 33 mins.