Evil genius Kate Beckinsale is seeking Love & Friendship

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      Starring Kate Beckinsale. Rating unavailable

      Far from their rhinestone-littered stomping grounds in The Last Days of Disco, Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny reunite with ultra-Yankee director Whit Stillman for a zesty shot of baroque fun.

      Based on an early Jane Austen novella called Lady Susan, the sardonically titled Love & Friendship gives us a delightfully detestable villain in Beckinsale’s career high, as Lady Susan Vernon. This being pre-Victorian England (or post-Victorian England, for that matter), the only way a woman can achieve anything is through charm and conniving. And, as someone states, Susan is a “genius of the evil kind” at manipulating everyone else.

      The only person she’s remotely straight with is her American-expat friend, Mrs. Johnson (Sevigny), but that’s mostly because the latter is so ceaselessly admiring. Plus, this allows Susan to explain her motives and strategy. (The original unfolded in letters.)

      Recently widowed, she survives by rotating visits with wealthy friends and relatives, sometimes decamping in a hurry. When we meet her, she has alighted at the country estate of sister-in-law Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwall). Catherine’s handsome younger brother, Reginald (Australian Xavier Samuel), initially shares her wariness of Susan’s scorched-earth reputation, but soon after meeting the beautiful widow he’s valiantly defending her from the “vile calumnies” of others. She has a well-polished knack for turning insults back on her accusers, but is not at her best around mousy teenage daughter Frederica, played by Morfydd Clark, also seen in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

      Like that spoof, Stillman’s latest takes the English author—around 19 when she came up with this—as a foundational part of popular entertainment, and he’s not afraid to add a twist or three. Silent-movie devices, on-screen typography, and Mozartian music all bring out her farcical qualities—underlined by unforgettable comic visits from Tom Bennett as “a bit of a rattle” courting reluctant Frederica. But L&F’s burnished cinematography and elegant performances offer a droll soulfulness that embodies everything we still love, and like, about Jane Austen.