If one thinks about it, Easy Virtue is a piece of work long overdue for a modern film version. The 1924 Noel Coward play, one of his earliest successes, has only been filmed once before, in 1928, and although it was directed by future legend Alfred Hitchcock, it was also a silent picture, and as a result lost much of the dialogue-based wit which was Cowards stock in trade. Also, at first glance director Stephen Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) who, like Coward, had found success producing biting pieces of social commentary that are also warm and amusing, seems like the right man for the job. Unfortunately Elliott, his co-screen writer Sheridan Jobbins, as well as their cast, do not have an easy time translating this Jazz-age drawing-room comedy into a 21st century movie.
The story concerns a friendly, naïve young Englishman named John Whittaker (Ben Barnes, Prince Caspian‘s Prince Caspian) who meets and marries a glamorous American race-car driver, called Larita (Jessica Biel), in Cannes while on a tour of the continent. While the new couple rides into the film on a cloud of happiness, they are soon brought back down to earth when they visit the Whittaker’s palatial country estate, where they face the instant disapproval of John’s mother, Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Veronica had been hoping that John would marry his wealthy and well-named childhood sweetheart Sarah (Charlotte Riley), who comes to dinner at the Whittaker’s on the very day of John and Veronica’s arrival. John, who has a fool’s talent for being blissfully at ease, sees no problem with Sarah and Larita meeting, and Sarah is actually quick to forgive him when she meets Larita, who impresses with her sophisticated interests and glamorous background.
Equally impressed is Sarah’s brother, Phillip (Christian Brassington) who is instantly smitten with the American blond. This is bad news for Hilda (Kimberly Nixon), John’s sister who has been after Phillip for a while, but has all the coquetry and sophistication of a five-year old to attract him with. John’s other sister, Marion (Katherine Parkinson) is already engaged, but to a man that everybody but her realizes has no wish to ever return from his “vacation” overseas.
Veronica decides that the best strategy to break John and Larita apart is to smother her son with all the comforts of home, while at the same time giving Larita every possible incentive to leave. Larita is already allergic to the local plant-life, and she is desperate to escape to the city with John even before Veronica’s implicit ban on cigarettes and virtual ban on sex. At first, Larita has most everyone besides Veronica on her side, but her accidental murder of the family dog, the revelation of some unknown chapters from her past (nude modeling, a murder trial) and her monopoly on the attention of the local men soons turn everyone except the servants against her.
Everyone, that is, except John’s father, The Colonel (Colin Firth). A WWI vet who generally ignores his wife (and her smoking ban), The Colonel and Larita find themselves to be kindred spirits, sharing a love of adventure and faraway places, and are both bored to tears by life at the Whittaker’s mansion. With his dark sunglasses and bohemian scarves, The Colonel is the closest thing to cool that a girl as hip as Larita can find in the middle of rural England. And it’s amazing that Firth does so well in the role, considering that while he may have been dashing, charming or adorable in the past, he’s never been just straight up “cool”. Hopefully he’ll take more roles like this, in addition to the grumpy love interest he usually plays.
The rest of the cast is solid (its hard to go wrong with Kristin Scott Thomas), but sadly Biel is woefully miscast as the troubled Larita. It’s not her fault, really. Her sexual charm is obvious and immediate, but she is simply too young to play the weary woman-of-the-world that Coward’s story demands. In real life, she is younger than Barnes, who is supposed to be an ultimately failed match for her due to his youth and inexperience with love.
But that is the principle problem with Easy Virtue. None of the acting is particularly sub-par, but the way Elliot and Jobbins have constructed the script for film leaves most of the characters seeming two-dimensional and unsympathetic.
In Coward’s original plot, explanations abounded for the actions of the Whittakers. Veronica, for example had a medical condition that helped explain her constantly uptight demeanor. Many of the secondary characters, like Sarah and Marion, had deeper connections with Larita that helped pinpoint her relationship with the family as a whole. As it stands in the film, the antagonism between Larita and everyone else seems kind of vague.
Sure, Veronica is pretty bitchy to her new daughter-in-law, but Larita treats the whole family as if they are simple-minded monsters unworthy of her attention almost from the get-go. It gets a little frustrating to watch her refuse to participate in any activity which might actually make her in-laws more accepting (why does she hate tennis so much, anyway?). As John points out, no one else is bored. Why is she?
In Coward’s play, Larita stood as a light that illuminated the hypocrisy of the British upper-class, with Veronica’s grudges against her being revealed as ridiculous in comparison to the ruthless actions she has taken in her own life. But in the film version, it’s hard not to sympathize with Veronica and her daughters just a little bit. It turns out that the Whittaker’s estate is bleeding money faster than AIG, and the family needs John to stick around and manage the place, as The Colonel has no interest in helping out whatsoever. A marriage to Sarah and her wealthy family would also go a long way to restoring the Whittakers ‘ fortunes.
And the thing is, Sarah is a fine woman with a lot to offer besides cash, which John himself realizes pretty quickly after his return. When Larita thinks about leaving John, it’s not just because of his family, but because she doesn’t think he loves her enough to die for her. So fine, John does not wish to necessarily take a bullet for his promiscuous American wife, but does that, and a desire to live in the place he was raised, make him a bad person?
Near the film’s end, Larita tells the Whittakers everything she thinks is wrong with them, all the anger that she has built up over the film’s course finally being released. But it comes off as cruel rather than satisfying. Hilda and Marion are in love with assholes, that much is true, but doesn’t that mean that they deserve pity rather than venom? And while Larita perhaps does not deserve to be judged for her romantic history, is she, as the woman who has yet to learn from her mistake of always marrying the wrong man, really the one to judge others (and seriously, what is so wrong with Veronica’s concern when she discovers Larita was tried for her former husband’s murder and never told her husband about it?! A plot element added by Elliot and Jobbins] Veronica does what any mother would do and tells John about it, but Larita is then given her chance to explain, isn’t she?)
Compounding this issue is the film’s style. Elliott can’t seem to decide if he wants his picture to be a wacky, slapstick comedy or a serious, soul-searching drama. There are plenty of silly antics scored with the obligatory flapper-tunes, which much of the time makes for a light, fun-filled outing (although it never matches the zany fun of similar works like the televised version of Wooster and Jeeves or even more campy wonders like Moulin Rouge).
But then the film veers into portrayals of life’s darkest moments, and it’s more uncomfortable than comprehensive. The audience surely gets that The Colonel has some baggage left over from the war — I mean he still calls himself the ‘The Colonel’ for chrissakes — and the misty-eyed description he gives Larita of watching his boys go ‘over-the-top’ to their deaths is extraneous, and out of place in a film in which a woman killing a pet dog by sitting on him accidentally is played for laughs. Sometimes tragic-comedies work, but they have to be consistent. Let’s leave the WWI black-comedy to Blackadder, shall we?
Not that the film is a total bust. Like director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice,Atonement), Elliott has found a way to film to a living, breathing pre-war England, one that is sumptuous and alive, that is a far-cry from the stuffy, ‘period-drama’ style that has been used for years by everyone from Merchant Ivory to Ang Lee. While many of his and Jobbin’s modifications to the original play fall flat, he does manage to achieve success with some mostly visual pieces not implicitly suggested in Coward’s version. The quick, stylized montage that details Larita and John’s courtship while the opening credits roll is great, as is a magnificent scene where Larita joins a fast-paced fox-hunt over the Whittaker’s land, while riding a motorcycle instead of a horse, as Tom Jone’s ‘Sex Bomb’ anachronistically plays in the background.
There are plenty of beautiful visuals in this film, although the filmmakers don’t seem to realize it, as most of the interviews on the DVD version seem to focus on the actors rather than the scenery. It’s a shame, because the English countryside and Elliott’s treatment of it are the real stars here, more so than the script or anything else.