Sony // 2008 // 96 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // September 15th, 2009
"Is it my imagination or is the cutlery particularly deafening this evening?"
It's a testament to the enduring impact and appeal of Noël Coward's writing that Stephan Elliott's film adaptation of Coward's play Easy Virtue comes 80 years after its first screen incarnation (directed by Alfred Hitchcock) was released. And although this most recent version takes considerable liberties with its source material, it's nonetheless a well-acted, witty and entertaining film.
Britain between the wars. John Whittaker (Ben Barnes, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) is returning to his family's stately country house. With him comes John's new American bride Larita (Jessica Biel, The Illusionist), a lively race car driver who represents everything John's mother Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas, Tell No One) least desires in a daughter-in-law. Veronica's two daughters, Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson), also line up against "John's floozy." Veronica's husband (Colin Firth, Apartment Zero), however, a haunted, sardonic World War I vet, takes a shine to Larita, and proves to be a crucial ally in the newcomer's struggles with the imperious Whittakers.
Spoilers: Stephan Elliott's adaptation of Easy Virtue (he co-wrote the screenplay with Sheridan Jobbins) succeeds for two main reasons: the careful calibration of the script's tone (and shifts thereof), and the strength of its cast.
The Jazz Age-style music that plays during Easy Virtue's opening gives the impression that the viewer is in for a frothy, jolly good time with a bunch of delightfully silly Britons. But while Easy Virtue is certainly humorous, there's a dramatic element to the film that becomes apparent around an hour into the story. Generally, "meet the parents" movies end with the mother and/or father-in-law reaching some sort of détente with the son or daughter-in-law with whom they've traded insults and outlandish slapstick bits over the course of the film. Not so with Easy Virtue; Mrs. Whittaker is a hard case all the way to the end of the movie. Additionally, both Larita and Mr. Whittaker are deeply troubled by their respective pasts, and the unearthing of one of Larita's secrets drives the film's final scenes.
The humor of Easy Virtue is derived largely from the witticisms tossed out by the cast. When Veronica comments on the fact that her husband is smiling, he remarks, "God forbid, the wind might change." Later, when Veronica asks Larita, "Is it true you've had as many lovers as they say?" she responds with, "Of course it's not true, Mrs. Whittaker. Hardly any of them actually loved me."
Some of the humor is physical, and these bits represent Easy Virtue at its most modern -- and possibly controversial, as these elements are the strongest break from the source material. The death of the beloved Whittaker family Chihuahua is one noteworthy example of the physical comedy in the film. Another gag comes when Larita, pressured to take part in a hunt, turns up not on a horse but a motorcycle. For me, these jokes didn't work nearly as well as the film's dialogue, and while they didn't necessarily detract from the film, they don't add much either.
The last third of Easy Virtue, coming off the mostly fun first two acts, might be trying for some viewers. During this portion of the film, we learn about Larita and Mr. Whittaker's pasts, and Veronica becomes even more spiteful and bitter. But those who stick with it will find a well-done attack on hypocrisy amongst Britain's landed gentry. Although the direction of the story (and, more to the point, which characters end up with which) becomes pretty apparent roughly halfway into the movie, the strong writing and terrific ensemble carry the day...
...Which leads me to my next point. For his version of Easy Virtue, Elliott has a top-flight cast. Jessica Biel, usually relegated to throwaway roles in throwaway films like Summer Catch and Stealth, is given a character of substance here, and she doesn't squander the opportunity. Biel more than holds her own in the film, delivering a funny, energetic, and ultimately touching performance as Larita. Her counterpart, Ben Barnes, doesn't have as big (or as fleshed out) a role, but he proves a good choice for the part. It's interesting to watch his character as he goes from being Larita's partner in crime to turning out to be, in the end, not much different than his family.
Kristin Scott Thomas has either one of the most fun roles or the most thankless, depending on your opinion. The character of Veronica is so full-bore evil that Elliott told her to play the part like a Disney villain (which she reportedly dubbed the worst piece of direction she had ever been given), and although she isn't that over the top, she's suitably monstrous in a cool, ever-so-poised manner that is incredibly effective.
But the real winner here, among a crowded field of contenders, is Colin Firth's portrayal of Mr. Whittaker, a character who has been greatly fleshed out from Coward's play. Firth has proven himself adept in comedies in the past, so it should come as no surprise that he brings expert timing to his role, delivering the script's witticisms to maximum effect. He also nails the self-loathing, depressive aspect of his character, and his scenes with Larita are performed quite nicely by both actors. All in all, Firth's performance is one of the more enjoyable I've seen from the actor of late.
A brief mention should also be given to Kris Marshall, who plays Furber, one of the Whittaker family's servants. Marshall (who appeared in Love Actually with castmate Firth) gets some amusing comic moments throughout the film, often when you would least expect it. Like Mr. Whittaker, Furber is another character who appears in the original play but whose role has been expanded for Elliott's film.
Sony's DVD of Easy Virtue is very good from a technical standpoint; the image is clean and bright, and the sound is well balanced between the film's dialogue and bouncy soundtrack. For extras, there is a feature-length commentary track with Elliott and Jobbins. The two keep up a steady, enjoyable conversation, discussing everything from the challenges of shooting on a tight schedule and limited budget to contending with the paparazzi that would besiege the shoot whenever Biel squeeze Justin Timberlake dropped by. Also included are a handful of unremarkable deleted scenes, a brief featurette shot at the New York premiere of the movie, a mostly unfunny blooper reel and the film's trailer.
Despite its somewhat heavy last act, Easy Virtue is a fun film with sharp dialogue and game performances. For fans of this sort of thing, Easy Virtue is an easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes