Lady Susan, an early Jane Austen manuscript that apparently never made it to the rewriting stage and was published over fifty years after Austen’s death as an unfinished novella, is the unlikely source of Whit Stillman’s new film, Love & Friendship. Reuniting with this Last Days of Disco stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, Stillman translates this little-known Austen tale to the screen as a drawing room comedy for the poison-tongue set that feels at once wholly Austen and yet completely Stillman. It’s an unlikely but brilliant match of material and maker, and Love & Friendship is that rare English period piece that is legitimately funny even by our contemporary standards.

Twenty years after she played Emma Woodhouse for the BBC, Beckinsale stars as Lady Susan Vernon, a relatively new widow with a sharp wit and no heart. She’s deeply unlikeable—a scheming, conniving liar who toys with people for sport—which makes her unique amongst Austen heroines. She bullies her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark, an A+ name person playing an A+ name character), whom she holds in open contempt, and is a scandalous flirt who begins the film having been kicked out of her friend’s country house for dallying with a married man. In order to wait out the ensuing social storm, Lady Susan and Frederica relocate to her sister-in-law’s estate, where she promptly gets embroiled in a new mess.

What Lady Susan does share with most Austen heroines is a concern about money. The film revolves around her scheme to find rich husbands for herself and Frederica, and naturally she’s keeping the handsome young heir, Reginald (Xavier Samuel), for herself. For Frederica she has selected Sir James Martin, a very silly person played with absolute brilliance by Tom Bennett. A friend of mine tipped me off about this performance, citing Bennett as the stand-out and one to watch, and she’s absolutely right. He gives a hall of fame buffoon performance, playing a platinum-standard Austen buffoon. Bennett turns “How do you do?” into a gut-busting joke. Love & Friendship would be worth it for him alone.

But the rest of the movie is good, too. It’s not the deepest Stillman has ever gone, but there’s such enjoyable lightness to it, with sparkling dialogue, really funny exchanges, gorgeous costumes and drool-worthy country houses. Fans of Merchant Ivory films will love the look of Love & Friendship, fans of Austen will revel in the dialogue and comedy of manners, and fans of good movies will enjoy the well-drawn characters and excellent acting. It’s especially nice to see Beckinsale, who I first knew from films like Much Ado About Nothing and Cold Comfort Farm, back in this milieu, after a twenty-year trip into bad supernatural blockbusters and rom-coms.

The only false note is Chloe Sevigny, who reads too modern to really fit into the late eighteenth century setting. She plays Alicia, Lady Susan’s friend and an American visiting post-Revolutionary War. She’s pretty much as awful as Lady Susan, and Beckinsale and Sevigny are obviously having fun together, but it’s always jarring when the camera glides around a dainty parlor and lands on Sevigny, who looks like a hipster trapped in an elaborate escape room. Not all actors work in period settings, no matter how talented they are, and Sevigny doesn’t seem to work pre-mid-century. I don’t remember her sticking out this badly in Zodiac, but she really does here.

That minor quibble aside, Love & Friendship is delightful. Lady Susan doesn’t get quite the come-uppance that Austenian mean girls usually do, but the ending is satisfactory and just. This is a beautiful film with so much great dialogue—a quotable historical romance!—and it ought to please Austen fans and casual viewers alike. It’s well worth taking the time to find it in theaters, but if you can’t, it will be on Amazon Prime later this summer. Either way, make time for Love & Friendship. Just so you’ll know Tom Bennett’s name before he blows up, if for no other reason. Although the film gives you plenty of other reasons.

Attached - Kate Beckinsale arriving at LAX the other day.