In order to avoid the gossip that inevitably follows her, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale, the Underworld series), recently widowed but still quite popular, decides to spend some time at Churchill, the palatial country estate of her late husband's kindly brother, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his lovely young wife, Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwell). Catherine's handsome younger brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel) is also staying there, and he is immediately drawn to the saucy widow, much to his family's chagrin. Susan is a master manipulator and quickly has Reginald in the palm of her hand, all the while trying to arrange the marriage of her young daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to an eligible and likable, but stupid man of great wealth, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett)... or is she really trying to get him for herself?
Her ever-present partner in crime is her American best friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who is married to an older, sickly gentleman (Stephen Fry) who despises and forbids his wife's relationship with Susan, not that she listens. She aids Susan in the various plots and plans that she hatches to gain sympathy from the Vernon family and to attract and manipulate the various men that she deems worthy of herself and/or her daughter. Susan's true object of affection is her lover, the handsome and very married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearain), whose distraught wife Lucy (Jenn Murray) happens to be the former ward of Alicia's husband, Mr. Johnson.
As Susan makes Reginald fall for her, she sneaks off with Manwaring with Alicia's help, all the while manipulating things such that her daughter Frederica winds up at Churchill as well, with Sir James trailing behind. Even when confronted with obvious proof of her trickery, Susan seems to have a reasonable excuse for everything, such is her genius. By the end of the film, her puzzle pieces will have fallen oddly and ridiculously into place, with unexpected marriages and alliances occurring. Even if the audience is left dumbfounded, one gets the feeling that everything has gone exactly according to puppet master Lady Susan Vernon's plan.
Love & Friendship is a silly film and there are so many characters that it is hard to keep up. The filmmakers realized this and, in fact, introduce each new character with their name and a brief description below. It's a clever way to handle it, but it is still initially difficult to remember where everyone fits in. Tom Bennett's portrayal of the idiotic Sir James Martin is truly funny, as he struggles to relate to the highly intelligent Frederica, who really doesn't want to be saddled with this dolt, no matter how rich he is. Beckinsale is great as Susan Vernon, so proud and manipulative and probably one of the most selfish characters I've seen in a while.
The only special feature, aside from some previews, is a short behind the scenes featurette where the actors and filmmakers discuss bringing the novella to screen. It's an amusing watch and gives you some additional info on the differences between the book and the film, but it's also easily skipped.
If you like period pieces and Jane Austen, you'll probably get a kick out of Love & Friendship. The costumes and sets are gorgeous and the actors and their interplay are fun to watch. It's not the typical Jane Austen fare, but it is amusing.