“Love & Friendship,” based on a Jane Austen novella, is a funny, unapologetic portrait of a diabolically clever woman named Lady Susan Vernon, a character described by her sister-in-law as both a “genius of an evil kind” and a “serpent in Eden’s garden.”

When we first meet the widowed Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), she is swiftly leaving the Langford estate (owned by the divinely attractive and inconveniently married Lord Manwaring) and taking up residence with her in-laws. Her plan, initially, is to marry Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), the handsome younger brother of Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), the sister-in-law who sees Susan with clear eyes. Success seems inevitable until Susan’s daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), arrives at the estate, having run away from school. A master improviser, Susan proposes to marry off Frederica to Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a ridiculous man who delights in discovering the pleasure of eating peas.

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Frederica’s dilemma would be the focus of most Austen adaptations. Poor girl. Forced to marry for convenience instead of finding her true love. Here, she’s portrayed as a whiny antagonist, with her mother regarding her with this verbal swipe: “Children. Of course, when they’re small, there’s a sweetness that compensates for the dreadfulness that comes after.”

Beckinsale delivers the line with the delicious satisfaction of a self-aware woman confident that she’s always one step ahead of everyone else. Her one equal is her good friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), with whom she shares her schemes and also sees marriage as a means to an end, eternally hoping for her respectable husband’s (Stephen Fry) demise and disappointed when it doesn’t come.

Director Whit Stillman does a masterful job of taking the characters, the plot and the perfectly worded sentences in Austen’s novella and shaping them into a work that now feels complete. “Love & Friendship” is only Stillman’s fifth film in more than a quarter-century of work, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying. After this triumph, he should have plenty of new suitors.