Film review – Easy Virtue (2008)

Larita (Jessica Biel) and Mr Whittaker (Colin Firth)

Larita (Jessica Biel) and Mr Whittaker (Colin Firth)

Australian director Stephan Elliott hasn’t had much luck since writing and directing the 1994 hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. He has since made two poorly received films and skied off a cliff in the French Alps, breaking his back. While bedridden Elliott began his comeback by starting work on the stage adaptation of Priscilla The Musical, which has since been a massive success. Elliot also began working on an adaptation of the early Noël Coward play Easy Virtue, which had only ever been adapted for film once before by Alfred Hitchcock as a silent film in 1928. It is odd to think of Easy Virtue as a silent film and Elliott’s terrific new adaptation takes full advantage of the wit and nuances of Coward’s dialogue.

In many ways Easy Virtue resembles films like Meet the Parents as both draw humour from the cultural clashes that result when somebody marries into a family with values that are very different to their own. In this case the outsider is the feisty, independent American racing car driver Larita (Jessica Biel from The Illusionist) who marries Englishman John (Ben Barnes who played Prince Caspian from The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) and becomes part of the upper-middleclass Whittaker family, who live on a grand estate in country England. While Mr Whittaker (Colin Firth) seems to take to Larita, John’s sisters and family matriarch Mrs Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) are far less accommodating. As the social niceties decay, battle lines are drawn. Easy Virtue is a great blend of visual comedy, witty remarks and biting social observations of English society in the early 1920s.

Mrs Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Larita

Mrs Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Larita

The highlight of the film is the script based on Noël Coward’s original play, which combines the sophisticated wit of the play Private Lives with a hint of the dramatic power of David Lean’s film Brief Encounter, which Coward wrote. Underneath all the delightful, and very English, quips and remarks is a portrait of a post World War I society that is slowly drowning in loneliness, boredom, repression and sorrow. While Jessica Biel does a reasonable job of bringing the humour and more serious social commentary alive, Ben Barnes is a bit limp in his delivery. Fortunately Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas bring a wonderful energy to the proceedings as the well seasoned performers that they are. They both have a radiant presence on screen and beautifully balance the film’s humour with its dark subtleties.

The visual style of Easy Virtue is a little like that of a restrained Baz Luhrmann film. This is a good thing, as the stylistic techniques exist to facilitate the humour and themes of Coward’s play, rather than drawing too much attention to themselves. The art deco glamour representing Larita’s world, contrasts beautifully with the old English manor of the Whittaker’s. The repeated use of mirrors and reflections is a constant reminder that the characters are presenting an illusory version of themselves. Elliott also has a lot of fun with anachronistic music and some very clever graphic matches are used to create the transition between scenes. This is an excellent adaptation of Coward’s play and Elliott’s skills as a director are beautifully on display.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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