Whit Stillman has, kind of, always been making Jane Austen adaptations: his 1990 debut, Metropolitan, is a loose reworking of Mansfield Park, in addition to mentioning Austen in the dialogue, and his entire career to this point (five movies and an Amazon pilot that didn't get picked up, in 26 years - also a 1996 episode of Homicide: Life on the Street that he didn't write, but how crazy would we have to be to count that?) has consisted of stories about well-to-do wits asserting superiority over each other by means of skillful language use and striving to always be the most emotionally closed-off. So it's really only natural that he'd finally turn to Austen herself as the primary source for his first ever literary adaptation, Love & Friendship, based upon the incomplete novella Lady Susan that Austen abandoned, and which was published decades after her death.

I have not read the book, as I gather most people have not (for that matter, I'd never even heard of it until the film came out), but my sense is that it was more the skeleton of a story than anything else, meaning that Stillman was compelled to flesh out the scenes, characters, and dialogue doing his very best Jane Austen impression. Nobody better to do it, and the results are superb: pure confection, as one great ironist and wordsmith is filtered through the perspective and personality of another, resulting in an hour and a half of people locked into a rigid code of social behavior being knocked about by a completely vile monster of a woman, whose epic feats of self-serving manipulation of that same social code make her an endless delight to watch. Love & Friendship opens itself up to the charge of being largely trivial, a criticism that has been laid against it from multiple points; but what's so wrong with triviality, when it's as confidently executed and fantastically pleasurable as this?

The film is set near the end of the 18th Century in London and the nearby countryside, and involves the usual complicated social politics and sexual mores of Regency literature, but in this case it all hinges on the recently-widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). The death of her husband has left Lady Susan quite destitute, and she spends most of the movie manipulating various batches of characters to provide a place for her to stay. Foremost among these are Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), her late husband's brother, and his keenly perceptive wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell), who quickly deduces that the legendarily flirtatious Lady Susan has set her sights on Catherine's own brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), and this thought chills her to the bone, as it does her parents, Sir Reginald (James Fleet) and Lady DeCourcy (Jemma Redgrave). While busy terrifying the DeCourcy family, Lady Susan has enough time to set up a match between her teenage daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) and the utterly repulsive rich ninny Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett); she also keeps up an affair with the married Lord Manwaring, whose wife Lady Lucy Manwaring (Jenn Murray) was the ward of a certain wealthy Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), himself unhappily married to the American expatriate Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), Lady Susan's best friend and general co-conspirator.

The plot is both convoluted and light as a feather: it basically consists of Lady Susan's endless series of manipulative plots and inspired improvisations when her plots are derailed, usually through Catherine's efforts. Mostly, it's just an excuse to watch a tremendously immoral person do her stuff, and to secretly - or, honestly, quite openly - root for her in her attempts to outwit the entire edifice of Proper Georgian Society. I can't speak to Austen, whose work that I've read tends to have a traditional moral sense, however ironically expressed, but Stillman rather obviously adores Lady Susan and puts very little effort into guiding us to think of her as anything but an awesome force of pure will. Beckinsale, whose best screen performance to date was in Stillman's third feature, The Last Days of Disco from 1998, dives into the part with great enthusiasm, playing Lady Susan as a devilish charismatic, switching emotions on and off in the blink of an eye, and delivering Stillman's thick, luscious lines of dialogue with a great solemn innocence that permits smug self-satisfaction to leak out around the edges in a way that's terribly entertaining for us in the audience, but still subdued enough that we can understand why the other characters would think she's up to no good, but can't quite prove it.

There are other great performances - I particularly enjoy the way that Greenwell plays her character as an optimist slowly ground down by repeated exposure to Lady Susan, and there aren't enough words of praise in the world for Bennett (a TV actor whose work is completely unknown to me) and the way he lets his character's idiocy play as a gush of words only barely stitched into thoughts, resembling a small dog's ability to fixate madly on one thing while also being eminently distractable. Only Sevigny comes across as anything less than perfect, owing entirely to her modern way of talking and carrying herself; but even she has such phenomenal chemistry with Beckinsale that I buy the character and her relationship to the protagonist anyway. The point being, Stillman's cast more than lives up to the verbal calisthenics he asks them to provide, while also tapping into the quintessentially Austen sense of brittle formality as both prison and tool for expressing one's deepest soul.

Frankly, whatever it lacks in fresh, penetrating social commentary (these are the themes every Austen adaptation wanders into, and Lady Susan herself is too rotten with self-regard to really count as a proto-feminist hero), the whole thing is so beautifully literate and perfectly crafted that I can't bring myself to think of it as anything other than a triumphant success, perhaps even Stillman's best film. For such a script- and character-driven film, it's marvelously well-shot by Richard Van Oosterhout, whose compositions capture something special about the dignity of the spaces in which the action takes place, and the physical presence of the people inhabiting them; it's even more impressively edited, by Sophie Corra, whose curt, fast-moving scenes build up enough momentum that 92 minutes ends up feeling like a perfectly sufficient time for a convoluted drama with a huge roster of characters to keep track of. Less unexpectedly, the production design, costumes, and hairstyles are all handsomely detailed, drawing on the iconography of period paintings to create a world that feels plausibly authentic, while still leaving enough room for abstraction that Stillman's typically arch way with his actors fits properly.

It's a lovely and often hilarious movie - Bennett's ability to wring belly laughs from some of the most unassuming sentences is alone enough to make it soar as a comedy, but one of Stillman's great successes her is in tapping into the strain of acerbic sarcasm that Austen's books all share, and which not even the best film adaptations of her work have done much to foreground. I cannot say that it's the aesthetic equal to the likes of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries or the theatrical version of Sense and Sensibility from the same year, but it puts in a strong claim to be the funniest Austen film yet made. It's pure confection with a nasty little soul, and it's utterly pleasurable in the way that only pure decadence can be.