"Easy Virtue" brings British humor to Rome fest

ROME Mon Oct 27, 2008 2:45pm EDT

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ROME (Reuters) - "Easy Virtue," a liberal adaptation of Noel Coward's play on the hypocrisy of English high society in the 1920s, brought a bubbly dose of humor to the drama-heavy Rome film festival, where it was warmly applauded on Monday.

A British production directed by Australian Stephan Elliott, the film tells the story of a free-spirited and glamorous female American race driver, Larita, who marries the son of an English aristocratic family after a whirlwind romance.

When they return to the Victorian family home, Larita, played by Jessica Biel, instantly finds herself on a collision course with her mother-in-law, a caustic Kristin Scott Thomas.

Colin Firth is also in the cast as Scott Thomas' withdrawn husband still haunted by the horrors of World War One.

While the "meet the parents" theme is hardly original, "Easy Virtue" builds on the wit of Coward's play by setting the psychological warfare between the two women against the backdrop of old-fashioned and decadent England in the post-war years.

It also turns the period film genre on its head with fast-paced, sassy dialogues and funny scenes that give the movie a light touch even when things in the stuffy countryside mansion start to get serious.

Elliott, who won critical acclaim with his quirky 1994 film "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," returned to directing after a nine-year absence following a skiing accident that nearly killed him and his own disenchantment with the film business.

"LIKE A MACHINEGUN"

He said he had reinterpreted Coward's play, which was also turned into a silent film in 1928 by a young Alfred Hitchcock, to give it "just a little bit more heart and emotion." Coward wrote it in 1924, when he was just 23.

"A lot of Coward was also very cruel. He could be very, very, very tough. In several drafts of this script I think we helped soften it down a little bit. His mind was like a machinegun -- it was like line, line line," Elliott said.

But he added that the themes explored in Coward's work -- unpopular wars, economic depression and euthanasia -- still had a contemporary resonance, besides the fact "that we all have a mother in law."

"All this stuff that you see in the film is so relevant now for exactly (the same things that were) relevant then, and it's fascinating to see how similar the times are," Elliott said.

"We are right in exactly the same times, nobody knows what's going to happen next," he told a new conference.

Early reviews of the film -- which is in the main competition at Rome, premiered at the Toronto festival last month, and will be released in Britain on November 7 -- have been positive.

"Elliott makes a smashing return," wrote the Hollywood Reporter, while rival trade publication Variety called the film "effervescent entertainment."

Critics also praised 26-year old Biel, a regular feature in polls about Hollywood's sexiest celebrities, for her portrayal of the platinum-blond, modern-minded Larita -- whom she said was a welcome change from her previous fairy tale roles.

"The really wonderful female roles that are challenging, interesting, and complicated and layered are so rare and they always go to the top tier of actresses," Biel said.

"It's always a struggle to find something that inspires you as an artist and it's ironic that I had to go to the UK to find something like that, that not so often you find in America."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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