Easy Virtue is a pretty bauble, I'll give it that. It's shiny and it has lovely people saying lovely things, and yet it is merely an average movie. Based on a play by Noel Coward, Easy Virtue was directed by Australian filmmaker Stephen Elliott, the man who brought us Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. You'd have thought the lesson he sewed into that movie would have stuck with him: just because you make everything look good up front, it doesn't mean that it's all okay in the back.
The story is set on a fading country estate in rural England sometime between the two world wars. The young son of the Whittaker family, John (Ben Barnes, Prince Caspian), has been on a wanton holiday in Europe, where he has picked himself up a wife. This wife, the lovely named Larita (Jessica Biel, The Illusionist), is not exactly what the family expects, however, and her numerous faults count among them race car driving, blonde hair, and being American. Far better for John to have married Sara (Charlotte Riley), the nice girl who lives on the adjoining farm and whom he has known since childhood. That would at least go a long way to saving the family fortunes, which won't happen when Larita takes her new husband off to London for a bit of the fast life.
At the head of the anti-Larita campaign is John's judgmental and prim mother, Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient), and his two sisters, the morbid gossip monger Hilda (Kimberley Nixon from TV's "Cranford") and the dowdy Marian (Katherine Parkinson, "The IT Crowd"). Marian pines for a lost love that was never a love at all and whom no one will ever tell her is not coming back. She's not the only one pining for something long gone, either. Chief among the household regrets is whatever lust for life dear old dad (Colin Firth) lost in the war. Mr. Whittaker is also the only one who accepts Larita for who she is, realizing that his son has brought his lovely bride back to a suffocating trap.
Which doesn't sound like the fixings for a clever comedy, but Noel Coward's writing works with the dirty stuff of life to make for a final dish that's much finer than the ingredients would suggest. There is low comedy in his play, including a dead dog and missing underpants, and there is also high wit, with many a verbal jab traded amongst the family. Likewise, there are dramatic moments both big and small, from the lighter ruminations on the meaning of love and the more grave perils of a family whose days are in decline. I don't know the play well enough to know how much is from the original text and how much is moviemaking invention, but screenwriters Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins at least have not added anything that would not go well when served with a dry martini. Too bad things get so wet....
It's hard to go wrong with Noel Coward as your source material, but that doesn't mean it's not possible. As if he were afraid that he might not get noticed standing next to the script, Stephen Elliott tries to force whimsy into every frame, creating a style that is so insistent in its obnoxious artificiality that it's impossible to forget it's there. For instance, Easy Virtue has built-in themes of the tug-of-war between tradition and modernity, but Elliot wants to make sure we know how much more modern his version is, and so he butts classic tunes by Porter and Coward against jazz-inflected remakes of "Car Wash," "Sex Bomb," and dear me, even a song by Billy Ocean (sung by the actors, no less!). Honey, Baz Luhrmann you are not. And would it have been too much to ask for you to use a simple cut or dissolve now and again, rather than these elaborate image to image match-ups that carry the film from one scene to another? Let a woman lighting a cigarette be a woman lighting a cigarette and a fire in the fireplace be just a fire--they don't have to be linked.
It's completely unnecessary. What with Noel Coward having done the first half of the job, once Elliott had assembled so fine a cast, all he really had to do was hand them the script, set up the cameras, and let them go. It's been a long time since I've liked Colin Firth as much as I did in this film. He plays the weary rogue well. And as the heroine, Jessica Biel may not be entirely up to the job, but she's sprightly enough to make a go of it and she looks tremendous in the period clothing. Like I said, Easy Virtue is a pretty movie, and so at least when it starts to lose your interest, you can sit and stare.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.