Jane Austen, Comedy Writer – that might be the title on her resume, if the great writer were alive today. Whit Stillman, director of the movie “Love & Friendship” has a brilliant comedic instinct that pairs beautifully with the teenage Austen’s witty sense of the absurdity that pervaded her portrayal of the social posturing of her day. She wrote “Lady Susan”, a series of letters, with the subtitle “Deceived in Freindship and Betrayed in Love”, in 1790 when she was only fourteen.  “Love & Friendship” is based on those letters, which were probably written to entertain Austen’s family during nightly readings. You can view the three actual notebooks in which Austen wrote the story as a teenager, in the Bodleian Library and the British Museum in London.

“Love & Friendship” is a subtle period piece set in the late 1700’s in the English countryside. Every properly stated phrase uttered by the characters is loaded with undercurrent. As you watch the film you become familiar with the language and the machinations with which it is spoken. This is a historically correct view of a time period as well as a wonderful comedy of misread and hidden intentions covered over with the posturing and language of the day. Every cast member displays impeccable comedic timing.

At the screening and discussion I attended, Stillman said the film was made on a relatively low budget of $3.75 million. The filmmakers had to be extremely efficient with location, work hours, and shooting schedule. This was probably a blessing in disguise, keeping everyone in a rhythm and on the same page, feeling the urgency. Stillman avoids rehearsals because he wants to see his actors enter a scene with fresh eyes, as we do in real life. Judging from this film, his style works.

Kate Beckinsale is superb as the protagonist/antagonist “Lady Susan.” Her performance is heartfelt and subtle enough that even her boldfaced lies seem to come from a sincere place.  Chloe Sevigny plays Susan’s American best friend, whose haughtiness covers the fact that she doesn’t really fit into the London society. Xavier Samuel is brilliant as the sincere but hapless love interest, forever outplayed by the strong women who surround him. Tom Bennet is hilarious as “Sir James Martin,” the ultimate witless fop. Morfydd Clark as Lady Susan’s supposedly innocent daughter steals her scenes – and she has a gorgeous singing voice.

By the end of the movie you will feel that you are at home in this elaborate social structure. The sardonic humor and machinations of the late 1700’s actually reflect our social media/TMZ-driven communications style. In a sense, their world was a very restrictive world. However it was less chaotic and easier to navigate than ours. Life played out like a soap opera of unrequited and/or unpermitted desires, social sleights, gossipy whispered conversations and hidden secrets. Sound familiar? Yes we humans have never lost our thirst for everyone else’s secrets. Jane Austen would be proud of her work crafting the story for this film.

Rated PG

92 Minutes

Released May 13th

Kathryn Whitney Boole has spent most of her life in the entertainment industry, which is the backdrop for remarkable adventures with extraordinary people.  She is a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. kboole@gmail.com. For previously published reviews see https://kwboole.wordpress.com/