Easy Virtue (2009)
Director: Stephen Elliott
Screenplay: Stephen Elliott, Sheridan Jobbins, from the play
by Noel Coward
Starring: Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas,
Colin Firth, Kris Marshall
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 97 minutes
The play, Easy Virtue was written
in 1924 by a 23-year-old Noel Coward. Coward's clever banter
with deeper societal undercurrents shines in this film version
of Easy Virtue.
On the surface, Easy Virtue is simply an enjoyable
romp with some stellar performances. The underlying conflict
between the fading cash-poor post WWI English aristocracy,
still seeped in repressive Victorian manners, and the young,
newly rich, brash and independent-thinking “Roaring
Twenties” Americans adds real depth to the film.
After a whirlwind romance, young well-born Englishman John
Whittaker (Ben Barnes, Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian)
marries the sexy, platinum blond American racing car driver,
Larita (Jessica Biel, The Illusionist, I Now
Pronounce You Chuck and Larry). Naively certain that
his family will be enchanted by his new bride, John brings
Larita home to his family’s estate.
It is clear from the start, however, that John’s mother,
Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas, The Other Boleyn
Girl, The English Patient, Gosford Park,
Four Weddings and a Funeral) is offended by everything
about her new daughter-in-law, including her very existence.
After all, Larita is a beautiful, sensual, older (than John),
glamorous, independent and sophisticated American divorcee
— the very opposite of the virginal English girl Mrs.
Whittaker had already chosen to be John’s wife.
Although Mrs. Whittaker may be challenged by Larita’s
overt sexuality, she also fears that if her son fails to remain
at home and manage the estate, she will slide into poverty.
Larita tries her best to fit in, but fails to tiptoe through
the minefield laid by her mother-in-law, while her husband
John remains either oblivious or obedient to his mother. After
an unsavory part of Larita’ past catches up with her,
Larita realizes that her young husband is still a boy, not
a man capable of deep and abiding love.
As a counterpoint to Mrs. Whittaker’s cold, manipulative
behavior, Mr. Whittaker, (Colin Firth, St Trinian’s,
Bridget Jones’ Diary) John’s detached
and depressed, WWI-veteran father, welcomes Larita. In the
film, Mr. Whittaker distances himself from a family who cannot
understand his World War I anguish and survivor’s guilt.
His is passively aggressive. He doesn’t shave; he doesn’t
do what he is told, he doesn’t observe the proper protocol,
and he drinks. He sees Larita as a kindred spirit —
one who has been altered by the complexities of life. Neither
Larita nor Mr. Whittaker will ever receive Mrs. Whittaker’s
Jessica Biel has the most demanding role in Easy Virtue. As
Larita, she must be able to command the center of attention.
Jessica Biel looks great as Larita, with her platinum hair
and flapper clothes, but it is difficult to know whether she
is a superior actor playing an uncertain character, or if
she is an uncertain actor playing a superior character. As
the film progresses, Biel’s acting improves. Perhaps
as Larita reveals her past and fights for her dignity, Jessica
Biel just has more to work with.
The performances by the older generation, Kristin Scott Thomas,
Collin Firth and Kris Marshall, playing Furber, the butler
(Death At A Funeral, Love Actually) are
Kristin Scott Thomas has captured the essence of her character.
She easily displays the light comedy timing and wit one would
expect from a Noel Coward creation.
Colin Furth, whose role is more subtle, portrays Mr. Whittaker
with depth and longing. We can easily identify with his unhappiness;
we enjoy watching Larita help him return to life.
Kris Marshall’s performance, as Furber the butler, is
a delight. This deadpan butler with a gleam in his eye is
another of Lorita’s allies. He at the top of his form
in the dog scene. If you see the movie, you‘ll know
exactly the one I mean.
Director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla,
Queen of the Desert) did a wonderful job of capturing
the essence of the English period between the Wars. The movie
has the benefit of wonderful costumes and sets.
It was filmed in magnificent stately homes in the UK. Flintham
Hall in Nottinghamshire acted as the Whittaker house with
the fabulous conservatory; Englefield Hall in Berkshire provided
some of the interior shots of the Whittaker family home.
I enjoyed this film with its witty dialogue, great character
acting and the mother-in-law from hell. I wanted Larita to
conquer her attackers, and at the end of the film, in a way
one might not expect, perhaps she does.
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2009 All Rights Reserved