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Stillman tries Jane Austen in charming ‘Love & Friendship’

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — Whit Stillman, one of our best chroniclers of the modern leisure class, has gone back to the 18th century in “Love Friendship,” an effervescent comedy about a deviously ambitious social climber.

The film premiered Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival.

In the film, Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco” stars Kate Beckinsale and Chlo Sevigny have traded their early ’80s sequins and Lacoste for bustles and petticoats. Beckinsale is Lady Susan Vernon, recently widowed and on the prowl for status, money and comforts, while Sevigny plays a married American all too willing to associate with the notorious Lady Susan.

We enter the story when Lady Susan takes up an extended visit at the estate of her sister-in-law, Mrs. Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwall). There she begins a flirtation with Catherine’s younger brother, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel). No one is particularly keen on the developing relationship between Lady Susan and the young Reginald De Courcy, and that sentiment is especially exaggerated when her neglected and marriage-aged daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), shows up too.

These are only half the players in the game, and it’s fun to watch them scheme and spread rumors and make deliciously biting remarks about their supposed friends and family for a brisk 92 minutes.

Overall, the film is a charming lark, and a definite departure for Stillman as he evolves here beyond his famously precise, formal language which is usually applied to a more modern setting, whether it be early ’80s discos or present day dorm rooms (“Damsels in Distress”). Stillman seems a perfect fit for Victorian comedy and the language and customs of Austen, and it works well, although it does have the effect of burying some of Stillman’s distinctiveness.

“It’s very early Jane Austen. She was in a very funny mode when she wrote this,” Stillman said before the Festival. “It’s not very sentimental.”

Unlike many Sundance features, “Love Friendship” had a deal in place with Amazon prior to its premiere – it’ll also get a theatrical run from Roadside Attractions. And it’s worth checking out whether you’re an Austen devotee, or just a fan of crackling dialogue and diabolical social situations.

Like an airy-light macaroon, “Love Friendship” is a lovely, sweet wisp of a film that evaporates as soon as the credits roll.


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