Westerly Films             1 hour 34 minutes             PG

Loosen the strings on an 18th century corset and you get unexpected big laughs from Jane Austen in Love & Friendship. Austen, in this case is channelled through Writer/Director Witt Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco). He’s an Austen fan who came across her unfinished novella Lady Susan (published 77 years after Austen’s death) and put together this classy, funny ensemble led by Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Savigny. They also co-starred in The Last Days of Disco.

Beckinsale plays Lady Susan, a young widow in need of funds to keep her living the life she believes the world owes her. She’s also trolling to find a husband for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Lady Susan’s sounding board and confidante in all of this is Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Savigny). Mrs. Johnson is an American married to a British aristocrat shortly after the conclusion of the American Revolution. The LAST thing she wants is a forced return to hated Connecticut. Stillman admits he’s surprised how much comedy he mined from the Nutmeg State.

The novella is comprised mainly of the letters the characters write to each other. Stillman shows the words of a some of the letters and they write out over the scene as the characters read them. These become some of the funniest moments in the movie because as we read the letter we also see the characters react on screen.

Stillman told us about two thirds of the movie is based on those letters, but the rest was “rushed into the script” as they were shooting and developing it on the fly. For instance, having Chloë Savigny be an American was decided  a week before the shoot. She had worked up a good English accent, but Stillman thought audiences, knowing she’s American, would focus on the accent instead of the humor. We think her American accent was a little too modern for the movie.

Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) is rich nit wit Lady Susan sets her eyes on. It was only after the director saw what a funny fop Bennett created did he change the script during filming to give him more opportunity to expand on the comedy. This is a film that outwardly looks so sedate, beautiful and under control yet it’s a crazy verbal ballet of lies and conniving  misdirection.

The lush, colorful dresses and mens’ suits add to the eye candy of the ornate mansions and estates where Lady Susan plays her games. Whether it’s Mrs. Johnson’s cleavage bulging out the top of her gown or Lady Susan brightening her colors from widow’s black to vivid colors to attract her man, there’s never a dull moment, visually.

Is this movie worth your bucks?

It takes a little time to acclimate yourself to the stylized language and the fast pace at which the dialogue comes at you. Once you get into the rhythm and get involved in the subterfuge, this is a smart, funny film. Stillman shows it’s still possible to get laughs without outrageous gross-out moments. Kate Beckinsale revels in her power as a woman and a manipulator and it permeates the screen. She is a character you love to hate and hate to love. But we loved it.