Love & Friendship ★★★½

Loose adaptation of Jane Austen's less-than-reverently-approached Lady Susan is almost perfectly suited to Whit Stillman's odd dialogue, linguistic cadences and keen sense of irony; the transition is nearly seamless, and his bemused but empathetic approach to the characters, from Kate Beckinsale's baldly and joyously manipulative Susan to the perpetually despondent wronged woman Lady Manwaring, is well matched by an extremely game cast, whose only somewhat weak point is Xavier Samuel, who as a straightforward if conflicted love interest simply isn't given much to do. The entire film is taken a bit off balance with the appearance of the splendidly idiotic James Martin; Tom Bennett's performance is so convincingly clueless, and so exquisitely rendered in its awkward innocence, that he completely steals the thunder of the rest of the cast, and your only wish thereafter is for more of him. While the film remains charming and acerbic after that, it just can't quite recover from the entrance of such a wildcard, particularly when the third act of the film is so abrupt and subtle -- with a strong tendency to play significant events off-screen, and a surprisingly, almost incongruously optimistic and kind-hearted conclusion. At any rate, Bennett's first scene is one of the funniest, most cringe-inducing moments I have seen in a film this decade, and the whole film is enough of a pleasure to recommend even without it, but still: even if you have no interest in this kind of thing, see it for him.