TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - A young American woman with a past invades an English aristocratic family already in the throes of disintegration brought on by World War I in “Easy Virtue,” Australian filmmaker Stephan Elliott’s impish reconstruction of an early play by Noel Coward.
Elliott (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) makes a smashing return to directing after several years’ absence because of a skiing accident and his own disenchantment with the movie business. The helmer, who co-wrote the script with Sheridan Jobbins, certainly catches the spirit of Coward’s attack on Victorian repression and hypocrisy masquerading as moral virtue. But he gives this a modern twist by making the father a man broken by the war and turning the family into a parody of English aristocrats out of touch with anything modern.
The film is a visual and verbal treat as Elliott prowls a stately home and its verdant, foggy grounds with an eye and an ear for puncturing pomposity in all its forms. Jessica Biel has great fun with the American adventuress, while Kristin Scott Thomas is truly scary as her nemesis and mother-in-law. “Easy Virtue” should charm older adult audiences and enjoy a long life in home video.
“Easy Virtue” was written in 1924, the same year Coward penned his first great comedy, “Hay Fever,” but has never received the same acclaim. (None other than Alfred Hitchcock made a silent movie version.) Elliott, in changing the emphasis and a few details, shows that this is one of the Master’s more savage critiques of English society.
A young Brit, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), falls madly in love with a female race car driver, Larita (Biel), in Monte Carlo — an unlikely occupation in the 1920s but an amusing addition to the story. He impetuously marries her and thereby jilts two women: the girl (Charlotte Riley) on the estate next door and, far worse, his mother (Scott Thomas), who hates all things foreign or modern.
When John brings his bride home, the outright war between Larita and Mrs. Whittaker is played mostly for wit and laughs in the early going. Characters even break charmingly into songs, often by Coward himself. Things take a serious turn when a secret from Larita’s past is exposed and John settles more determinedly into his role as country squire, a role that the family’s debt, to which he unaccountably is unaware, will no longer support. His younger sisters (Katherine Parkinson and Kimberley Nixon) are alternatively attracted and repelled by the brash vitality of this glamorous and sexy American.
The filmmakers are so on the side of Larita that even a scandal involving her first husband is turned into a triumph of loyalty and devotion. Indeed, Biel makes Larita an irresistible force of nature — a kind, witty, supremely intelligent and beautiful woman who dresses in the smartest fashion, remains cool under the more furious onslaughts of Mrs. W and is capable of rejoinders that thoroughly undercut her opponent’s withering criticism.
The key male role belongs to Colin Firth as the father. He led the village lads off to battle and returned home without a single one. Actually, he never did come home; his wife came and got him out of a French brothel where he intended to drink himself to death. He now is doing so simply in a different setting.
Larita reminds Mr. Whittaker of how one can still seize the day. And she recognizes in him the only member of the family that understands her and appreciates her modern outlook.
Elliott overplays his hands now and then. Kris Marshall is a lot of fun as a subversive butler but a most unlikely servant in such a household. The farcical comedy over a Chihuahua Larita accidentally kills is silly and unconvincing. Elliott does “gag up” a few sequences with special effects and modern humor, but you sense Noel Coward would applaud.