IT'S A LITTLE RUDE to betray the wishes of an author who kept certain books out of public view. Still, examining early, inferior, or neglected manuscripts can enable a richer understanding of the author's work. So in a sense, director Whit Stillman's unearthing of a very young Jane Austen's unpublished novella from the late 1700s, Lady Susan—which, in film form, has been retitled Love & Friendship—is perfectly justifiable. But don't get too excited.
Kate Beckinsale is in her element as Susan, a robust exemplar of 18th century feminism, in so far as it functioned among British society, anyway. An unsentimental widow, Susan is intent on securing the financial survival of herself and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), through the procurement of rich husbands. The most charismatic person in every room she enters, Susan bulldozes and manipulates everyone in her path, equally admired and reviled by her detractors. Beckinsale portrays her with natural ease, delivering the dense, florid dialogue in precise cadence and at whiplash pace.
The trouble is that Susan hogs up all the interest. Chloë Sevigny smirks into frame as Alicia, Susan's slavish American friend living "in exile" (a tweak from the original text that was apparently deployed to spare Sevigny the accent). Sevigny's performance is quietly winking, as if intentionally refusing to inhabit the character for reasons of obscure inside comedy (it's not that funny that Sevigny and Beckinsale last worked together on 1998's The Last Days of Disco... is it?). Tom Bennett has better luck getting laughs as James, a weirdo known for improbably idiotic observations and a dinner scene in which he makes a delighted, childlike discovery of peas.
Despite progressive themes, Stillman's film is too giddy to be emotionally compelling. The actors seem unable to mask their delight in the sumptuousness of the production (an orgy of decorative arts is the real star), making it difficult to invest in their complications. You could either watch it with the sound off and focus on its keen styling, or listen with eyes closed to let the language roll over you, but as a whole, it's not stimulating enough to demand full activation of your senses.