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They say that great books make mediocre movies and vice versa: just compare The Godfather, The 39 Steps, or Jaws to nearly any Dickens or Shakespeare adaptation ever made. Jane Austen has always been at least a partial exception to this rule, as well-beloved film and TV adaptations of Persuasion, Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility attest. It seems you can make a very watchable film simply by sticking her perfect lines of dialogue into the mouth of any halfway decent British character actor.

Even with all this competition, though, Love and Friendship is the best Jane Austen film I’ve ever seen. Based on an unfinished piece of Austen’s juvenilia, it concerns the attempts of a charming sociopath, Lady Susan (superbly played by Kate Beckinsale), to maneuver her sensitive daughter into an unwanted marriage and herself into the arms of her brother-in-law’s dashing young brother-in-law.

Whit Stillman, who scripts and directs, is a great comedic filmmaker (Metropolitan, Barcelona) with a troublingly snobbish streak—which, it turns out, makes him the perfect translator of Austen’s late-eighteenth-century worldview, one he largely shares. The result is a nearly perfect caper comedy, and a film that is both as faithful to Austen’s spirit as it could be and a Stillman masterpiece.

Note: This film is in limited release and is slowly making its way around North American theaters. (Amazon Studios)

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