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‘Love & Friendship’ has strong sense of Austen’s sensibility

Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett in "Love & Friendship." | Roadside Attractions

Nearly two decades after Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny played best friends in “The Last Days of Disco,” Whit Stillman’s sly and funny exploration of the club scene in Manhattan in the early 1980s, they’re playing best friends again in Stillman’s “Love & Friendship,” one of the sharpest and funniest Jane Austen adaptations in recent memory.

They should play best friends more than once every 18 years or so.

Beckinsale delivers one of the best performances of her career as Lady Susan Vernon, a smiling monster in widow’s garb who has all the airs and manners of a mainstay of the privileged class in late 18th century Great Britain — even as she casually and cruelly insults nearly everyone she encounters and schemes with diabolical precision to get what she wants when she wants it, without pausing for one second to lament the lives she so easily destroys.

While Beckinsale gets most of the deliciously wicked speeches and has the much showier role, Segivny is equally stellar in a lower key as Mrs. Alicia Johnson, an American who married an older Brit (the wonderful Stephen Fry) for a huge upgrade in the class system, even though she despises the poor fellow and openly roots for him to die, die, die already.

And Mrs. Johnson is the nicer of the two friends.

The recently widowed Lady Susan glides into the country residence of her late husband’s brother Charles (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell), who is perhaps the only one in this story with a clear grasp of just how evil Lady Susan can be.

Lady Susan has a plan: She’ll seduce Catherine’s younger brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel), a charming but not terribly bright fellow who will think it’s HIS idea to propose to the lady. See, the thing of it is, Lady Susan doesn’t really have any money to speak of, and she needs to marry well and to marry as soon as it’s acceptable in the eyes of society.

Morfydd Clark is Lady Susan’s hapless daughter Frederica, who runs away from school and shows up at the estate, much to the exasperation of her mother, who basically regards her child as a pesky nuisance who doesn’t have the good sense to grow up and go away forever. Lady Susan schemes to set her daughter up with Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who is a blithering idiot but DOES have class and money, which is all that matters to Lady Susan.

Bennett’s performance as the ridiculous but somehow endearing Sir James is a thing to behold. On one of the many occasions in which Sir James says something stupid and is called out for it, he says, “I stand corrected.”

Beat.

“It happens a lot.”

Indeed it does, Sir James.

“Love & Friendship” has the air of one of those movies where you sense the actors had the time of their lives on the set, what with getting to wear the garb of the time and reciting such sublime dialogue and performing such exquisitely choreographed scenes. Stillman has done a marvelous job of adapting Austen’s novella “Lady Susan” and capturing the author’s tart and rapier-sharp sense of humor, which doesn’t always translate to the seemingly infinite number of cinematic and television Austen-based works.

The costumes and the lighting and the sets in “Love & Friendship” are exquisite. (Even though it takes place more than a century prior to “Downton Abbey,” if you’re still missing “Abbey,” you’ll most likely enjoy the stuffing out of this movie.)

Whit Stillman has made just five films in 25 years, taking breaks as long as 13 years before projects. Here’s wishing he picks up a notch or six. He’s as good as just about anyone out there when it comes to lensing comedies of manners, whether they’re about upper-class New Yorkers in the late 20th century or upper-class Brits some 200 years prior.

★★★1⁄2

Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions present a film written and directed by Whit Stillman, based on Jane Austen’s unfinished novella “Lady Susan.” Running time: 92 minutes. Rated PG (for some thematic elements). Opens Friday at local theaters.