Easy Virtue


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Noel Coward’s play “Easy Virtue” is reinterpreted for film by Stephan Elliott following the director’s nine-year hiatus from moviemaking. Elliott fails to match the charm of his beloved cult hit “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” but “Easy Virtue” is an entertaining enough variation on popular Jazz Age themes celebrating new attitudes about pleasure and the assertion of individuality. Between the clever insults and the pretty design, there is enough to enjoy in “Easy Virtue,” even if it is nowhere near great.

“Easy Virtue” previously made it to the screen in 1928 as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent features, but the version produced by the future Master of Suspense is unmemorable, despite its focus on scandal and infidelity. One imagines that a chief draw of Coward (who was in his mid-twenties at the time he wrote “Easy Virtue”) is the repartee, and in that department, Elliott’s spin, co-written by Stephen Jobbins, retains many of Coward’s one-liners and snappy retorts. While the number of brilliant lines is in shorter supply than in some of Coward’s other work, there are still several killers that hold up, including one exchange in which the heroine has a terrific response when asked if it is true whether she has had as many lovers as rumored.

“Easy Virtue” focuses on a battle of wills and wits between a bold American race car driver named Larita (Jessica Biel, holding her own against the seasoned British thespians) and her new mother-in-law Veronica Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) following Larita’s impulsive marriage to the inexperienced John Whittaker (Ben Barnes). The action is typical of the drawing room comedy, and even though outright farce is kept to a minimum, several outrageous complications are thrown in the pot (including a doomed Chihuahua, a motorcycle in a fox hunt, and a saucy cancan sans culottes).

Larita is more comfortable around her new father-in-law, Colonel Whittaker (Colin Firth), a disheveled wreck whose sarcastic put-downs are the only thing keeping his nasty family members in check. Firth lends gravitas to his role as a numbed WW I veteran, which enhances his character’s ultimate payoff. Ben’s vicious sisters join Veronica in undermining and picking on Larita, and the Colonel is the only person decent enough to speak up on her behalf. Oddly, husband John fails to understand the extent of Larita’s ordeal, and if there is one dimension of “Easy Virtue” that would benefit from some additional exploration, it is the specifics of the marital relationship of Larita and John.

The theme of upper crust hypocrisy hovers in the margins of the movie, which moves along at a leisurely pace appropriate to its relatively tight 96 minute running time. Elliott does manage to have some fun tweaking the period setting, blending a handful of newer pop songs (including “Sex Bomb,” “Car Wash,” and Billy Ocean’s “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” in clever, jazzy arrangements) with a group of vintage tunes by Coward and Cole Porter.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/6/09.

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