Unusually for Austen, instead of being set in the 18-teens, the story takes place in the late 1770’s-early 1780’s, as the “American War” is recently over. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is recently widowed and left penniless. Her primary mission in life is to find an advantageous marriage for her talented but shy daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and secondarily for herself. She complicates matters for herself due to her due to her own desires, since, as the story opens, we see that she is being thrown out of the house of her friend, Lady Manwairing (Jenn Murray), who quite correctly believes that Lady Sarah has been too friendly with her husband.
She is able to take refuge with her late husband’s brother, Sir Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his family, which she uses as a base of operations to continue trying to make a match between her daughter and the wealthy but intractably stupid Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), while cultivating a relationship of her own with the young and handsome Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel).
The course of true love never did run smooth, and that of calculated matrimony even less so, as there are considerable complications before the plot works out.
Mr. Stillman is not quite up to Jane Austen’s level as a writer of dialog, and most of the wit and snark that we look for in adaptations of her novels is missing. This is mostly made up for by Lady Susan’s bottomless fount of invention. A master manipulator, she is never at a loss, even when nearly caught red-handed entertaining one man while keeping another on her string.
The plot works out in what we thought was the sensible fashion, although the denouement is brought about with some off-screen slight of hand, so a bit unsatisfying. On the other hand, the film is shot on location in Ireland, so both settings and costumes are fine to look at. Beckinsale gives a fascinating performance, and the cast of supporting characters, including Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry, and Jemma Redgrave, is just splendid, so it all adds up to a pleasant little movie.
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