“Based on a play by Noel Coward.” That’s a statement that’s got some oomph. Coward’s long been held as a master of wit, with plays like Blithe Spirit, Design for Living and Private Lives still well known long after his death. The film Easy Virtue is based on a play by Coward, and takes some of the design of his play, but it’s obvious that this is a modern redress, which is both interesting and not. My review after the jump.
Jessica Biel stars as the American Larita, who marries into the Whitaker family and to John Whitaker (Ben Barnes), after the two meet when she wins the Grand Prix. Very American, Larita does nothing to impress John’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), though his father (Colin Firth) is an eccentric and takes a shine to her immediately. John’s sisters are on the verge of becoming old maids, as Hilda (Kimberly Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson) have yet to marry, and can’t seem to find the right people. One is obsessed with a gentleman who won’t give her the time of day, the other is obsessed about a man she met once and has since disappeared.
Mrs. Whitaker wants the newlyweds to stay for reasons she rather not disclose, while Larita is anxious to go on and move on with their lives. And the longer they stay the more strain it puts on their new marriage. Larita finds herself doing things to one up her hostess, and the two enter into a war of wills to see who can control John best. But Mr. Whitaker has his own secrets, and has no problem showcasing his detached amusement.
Directed by Stephan Elliot (best known for Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), the film is set in 1928, but can’t help not hiding its modern sensibilities. When Car Wash plays in period style, it’s a genuinely funny moment, but I think this sort of culture clash would work better if they were committed to go full period, and as Elliot and screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins, they obviously modernized the screenplay to turn Larita from the villain to the hero of the piece. This would be slightly more interesting if they were perverting a classic, where there diversions from the text could create a complete dialog with the original material, but here, you can tell what they’ve changed to make it modern. Or at least to attract an American starlet. But this discordance is what gives the film its fission, as it is fascinating to watch the film knowing that the essentials have been tinkered with to create a modern reading. All art is malleable, even art by a respected great. I guess it’s good to tinker with a less well known work.
That said, I found the film to be engaging enough, mostly because of the cast, especially when the battle of wills heated up (the first act takes its time building steam). Alas the ending would be a little less predictable if Ben Barnes had half the charisma of Colin Firth. You can see where certain things are going down the stretch, but people like Kristen Scott Thomas and Firth are always on their A game. Surprisingly – for what its worth – Biel holds her own well enough. It’s an engaging and likeable performance.
Sony Pictures Classics presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in Dolby digital 5.1 TrueHD. This is a period picture, so don’t expect too much of it soundtrackwise, but the picture quality is aces. Extras include a commentary by director Stephan Elliot and screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins, which was illuminating on the birth of the project and the material. Extras include three deleted scenes (4 min.) outtakes (8 min.) and footage from the New York Premiere (5 min.) which spotlights how Barnes and Firth re-enacted an Eddie Izzard bit for the outtakes section. Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer, and bonus trailers.