Judge Clark Douglas finds it incredibly difficult to stay virtuous. Keep your sons and daughters hidden from him.
Our review of Easy Virtue, published September 15th, 2009, is also available.
"Who do you think you are, swinging your wherewithal like a cat in heat?"
Facts of the Case
A young and wealthy Brit named John Whitaker (Ben Barnes, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) has just married Larita (Jessica Biel, The Illusionist), a free-spirited American racecar driver. This horrifies John's mother Veronica (Kristen Scott Thomas, I've Love You So Long) to no end, and she greets her new daughter-in-law in as icy and condescending a manner as possible. A subtle war begins between the two women, as Larita responds to Veronica's chilly manner with playfully controversial (and intentionally confrontational) behavior. Despite the fact that John and Larita have the full admiration and support of John's father (Colin Firth, Nanny McPhee), the marriage increasingly seems in danger of falling apart. When the war between progressive independence and proper traditionalism ends, who will be left standing?
Easy Virtue is based on an early play by Noel Coward, so it's no surprise to note that it is a film of exceptional wit and insight. However, the manner in which director Stephan Elliot (most noted for helming The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) moves the play from "cleverly playful" to "enthusiastically ribald" is indeed quite surprising. If Coward's play was a slap in the face to outdated English attitudes of superiority, then Elliot's adaptation is nothing short of a kick in the teeth to that same mentality. I have a certain measure of admiration for a director who feels comfortable with attempting to improve on an acclaimed work of writing; I have even more admiration for a director who is able to pull off such a feat successfully.
The tone of Easy Virtue is particularly intriguing, veering comfortably between joyfully goofy comedy and intensely personal drama. Though the central figure is an American, the tone makes the film feel very British. Our friends overseas tend to be much less tentative about allowing comedy to approach remarkably painful territory (consider a film like Little Voice or a television series like The Office), and that sort of boldness often informs this film. Just look at the final twenty minutes, which move from comedy to drama to heartbreak to jolly anarchy. Elliot underscores the proceedings with an innovative yet appropriate combination of naughty period music ("Makin' Whoopee" and "Let's Misbehave") and tastefully re-arranged modern tunes ("Car Wash" and "Sex Bomb").
There is no predictability or tonal consistency in Easy Virtue, but it is always precisely what it wants to be. You can expect big laughs during the most broadly farcical scenes, most particularly a sequence in which Larita accidentally sits on the much-beloved family dog. I have a great love for dogs and animals in general, but I must admit that several fictional dogs have died noble deaths in the service of great comedy (the tragic canine passing in this film is only topped by an ongoing gag in A Fish Called Wanda). There's also a can-can sequence which contains an amusingly naughty surprise. Despite the side-splitting antics on display, when the film chooses to become serious it pulls us in and changes our mood with considerable efficiency. There are quiet, revealing moments that both serve as painful punctuations and serve to add truth to the comedy.
Kristen Scott Thomas and Colin Firth are playing a set of characters we frequently see in British period films: the uptight, rigid, constantly worried wife and the dryly witty and understanding husband. Even so, they do not come across as weary stereotypes because the actors playing them are simply too good to permit the roles to slip into such banality. Their performances are the best in the film, as they wisely manage to deliver their best lines in an Altmanesque offhand manner. Ben Barnes also proves far more captivating than he was in Prince Caspian, while Jessica Biel is energetic and assured in what is undoubtedly her most challenging role to date.
The film benefits from an excellent hi-def transfer that gives the lush period setting a genuine sense of vibrancy. This is a good-looking film that pays a great deal of attention to detail, so it's fortunate that the background detail is superb. The cinematography frequently takes a broader scope than many similar talky comedies, attempting to get a look at the entire setting of each scene rather than merely focusing on the characters. With this Blu-ray disc, one truly gets an appreciation for how much work has been put into creating. Facial detail is also quite solid, while flesh tones are warm and accurate. Blacks are satisfyingly deep. The audio is crisp and clear, though it should be noted that the music occasionally threatens to drown out the dialogue. It should have been dialed down just a bit, but otherwise there aren't any problems of note. Supplements include an audio commentary with Stephen Elliot and writer Sheridin Jobbins, a gag reel, some deleted scenes, and a brief featurette spotlighting the New York premiere.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have no major complaints of note, but I do feel like John's sisters are a bit too underdeveloped. Larita's final speech to them should have more bite and weight, but it doesn't seem terribly significant because we aren't as intimately familiar with them as we should be.
Easy Virtue boasts all of the expected production values of a professionally crafted period film, but those expecting the restrained propriety of Jane Austen are in for a surprise. This is rowdy, bold, lively filmmaking that proves to be an exceptional viewing experience.
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