The droll poise of playwright Noel Coward is returned to the screen in Stephan Elliot's "Easy Virtue." A firecracker of a period comedy brought to life by some of today's most elegant actors, "Virtue" possesses marvelous edge, wit, and pace, yet this latest incarnation of the 1924 play should be defined by one single, utterly shocking element: Jessica Biel. Turns out the young lady can act some, keeping up with the tempo of this culture comedy like seasoned pro.
Returning to his childhood estate in rural England, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) is eager to show off his new wife, daredevil American race car driver Larita (Jessica Biel), to his dysfunctional family, including his uptight Mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and disconnected Father (Colin Firth). Without even trying, Larita's brash American ways strike fear into the heart of the family, leaving the young woman a bored, confused outcast halfheartedly attempting to fit in with traditions she wants nothing to do with. Fearing her marriage is in jeopardy, Larita makes a concentrated effort to befriend her nervous mother-in-law, finding the emotional ice between them indissoluble, and the old-fashioned interaction of the estate's residents too constricting for comfort.
A production by the world-famous Ealing Studios, "Easy Virtue" endeavors to depict a bygone oral rhythm to its screen comedy. Using Coward's acidic social criticism as a starting point, Elliot burns through the material with extraordinary speed, imagining Larita's sudden entrance into the imposing Whittaker household as a psychological Normandy invasion, with verbal bullets fired in every direction as the family struggles to take in the extravagance of Larita and her crude foreign ways.
It's a constant juggling act for Elliot, who's required to find a sense of depth to the story while making sure the comedy is served up with a mind-spinning tartness as the golden one-liners roll out one after the other. Elliot handles the substantial workload quite satisfactorily, paying careful attention to scene transitions and performance velocity to help grease the way for the ornate dialogue and eventual arrival of melodrama. It's shot and edited beautifully by the production, setting a snappy pace early on, enlivened by the dramatic possibilities of frustrated feminist Larita trapped in the viper's nest of conservative England.
On one hand there's Thomas and Firth finding delicious beats to play as the bewildered parental figures, with Mrs. Whittaker chiefly cramped between an allegiance to her dear son and her natural offense to anything American. Still, Biel comes off the strongest, partially because she's never delivered this accomplished a performance before. As a platinum-blonde bombshell that places her adventures on hold to try on marriage for a second time, Larita is a tricky character used by Coward to define the slapstick, heartbreak, and social defiance of the period. Biel gets to Larita's soul quickly, and she's able to verbally joust with her co-stars seamlessly. It's a role that fits Biel well, nicely showcasing nuances and confidence she's rarely offered the camera before.
The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation on the "Easy Virtue" DVD preserves the soft, warm colors of the cinematography, retaining the intended opulence of the set design without removing critical hues. Facial detail remains in full effect, and black levels stay within reason during lowlight sequences. Some EE is spotted at occasional stops during the film, but it's never too distracting.
Containing an animated 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix, the DVD offers swell social engagement environments, with sound effects and dialogue reaching playfully into the surrounds. Of course the words are of primary concern here, and the character exchanges are handled with sharp clarity and careful frontal aim. Some bass kick is provided for the race and chase sequences, but nothing pushes the track into overkill. Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 mixes are also available.
English, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are provided.
Maintaining the bubbly mood, director Stephan Elliott and co-screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins provide a spirited feature-length audio commentary track. Admitting the film is about "30% Coward," the duo is more than willing to divulge most of their tricks and compromises, exploring the backstage alchemy and adaptation blues. Elliot is a riot to listen to, hitting some rich pockets of laughter with his recollections, but also offering some candid reflection on the film and his career as well. Turns out topping "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" involved incredible amounts of anxiety for the filmmaker. Medical issues, stories about Thomas and her reluctance to join the film, big screen technical magic, and daily shenanigans fill the rest of this wonderful track. English, Spanish, and Portuguese commentary subtitles are offered.
"Blooper Reel" (8:52) is a rather elongated series of mix-em-ups and spontaneity, and miraculously it manages to stay fresh and funny for the entire running time. Prepare for canine antics, flubbed lines, and Firth answering his cell phone during a take.
"Deleted Scenes" (4:58) offer a few choice moments of familial intergration for Larita, with some nice psychological shading for Biel to work with. Redundant scenes, but successfully executed.
"New York Premiere" (6:12) switches the normal promotional routine up a bit, gathering interviews with cast and crew on the red carpet. The chatter remains all air kisses and handshakes, but the setting is blessedly removed from the set, making the plastic sentiments easier to swallow.
A Theatrical Trailer has been included.
When "Easy Virtue" looks to amuse, it's incredibly effective, orchestrated with dizzying tempo by Elliot. When the story decompresses in the final act as Larita chooses between her marriage and her heart, it puts a damper on the proceedings, applying brakes of exaggerated frustration to such a fluid plot. The stinger is ultimately removed from "Easy Virtue," but it doesn't completely sour the overall motion picture experience. After all, just watching Biel share the frame with Thomas and Firth and not immediately crawl into a fetal position is nearly worth the price of the DVD alone.
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