Young Englishman abroad in the late 1920s, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), falls madly in love with and impetuously marries the slightly older but glamorous American, Larita (Jessica Biel). When he brings her home to the grand old, fading family home to English fox hunt country, his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) takes an instant dislike to her, as do his younger sisters, Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson). But his war-depressed father (Colin Firth) recognizes another outsider and a domestic war of attrition begins as British upper class mores clash with free spirited New World sensibility.
Review by Louise Keller:
With a delicious zest for life and a casual disdain for the upper middle class, Stephan Elliott's happy return to directing is piquant joy. In adapting Noel Coward's 1924 play, Elliott injects plenty of his own spirit and irreverence, and is even credited with playing the slide whistle and singing a refrain of When the Going Gets Tough at the film's end. The going certainly gets tough for Jessica Biel's new bride Larita, whose welcome to the stuffy, traditional Whittaker household is similar to that of a fox on the wrong end of a hunt. It's about keeping up appearances and the price of true love and with its hand-picked cast, splendid settings and contagious music score, this funny, witty comedy of manners that never takes itself too seriously, offers a romping good time.
A sure way to a man's heart might be through his stomach - or his mother, but there is no way Kristin Scott-Thomas' foreboding matriarch Mrs Whittaker is about to extend the welcome mat to her son John (Ben Barnes)'s new wife. Scott-Thomas embraces the badly done-by, bitter Veronica Whittaker with such understanding and plays her with heartbreaking disdain. ('I may not have travelled; but the world has come to me.') Hers is the ultimate tragic character, clinging to perceptions and traditions, who uses scorn and cynicism as her armour. Colin Firth is a comforting presence as Veronica's downtrodden husband, still suffering the after-effects of the war that has continued from the battle fields to their stately estate. Ben Barnes, like a young Keanu Reeves, straight off the set of Prince Caspian, is likeable as the enraptured young husband nicknamed Panda and Kris Marshall offers a droll presence as the butler who befriends Larita in the upstairs downstairs scenario. Jessica Biel, with her hypnotic movie-star smile is totally endearing as the head-turning racing car driver who drives and plays by her own rules.
There are some highly amusing moments, including one involving a Chihuahua called Poppy, and another during a fund-raising war-widow's review involving the Can Can. It's a fish-out-of-water tale that's beautifully dressed in more ways than one and whose soundtrack lifts our hearts with every note. We get a great sense of the times and music is used as a toe-tapping dividend. Cole Porter's Let's Misbehave articulates the film's theme and not only are we treated to Barnes' musical contribution singing Room With a View, but Biel's haunting and superb delivery of Coward's Mad About The Boy, which unlike an easy virtue, is hard to discard.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The often outrageous Steph Elliott is a surprising choice to make a Noel Coward adaptation, and a surprise it is for us too, in the best possible way. Elliott injects two special ingredients: a naughty sense of edgy fun within the dark frames of the story, and a splendid soundtrack (peppered with classic Cole Porter and Noel Coward songs) that is used more than usual to bring us both mood and tone. Then there is the marvellous Easy Virtue Orchestra under composer Marius De Vries, which gets an inventive back credit at the end - worth waiting for.
Noel Coward was merely 23 in 1924, the year he wrote Easy Virtue and Hay Fever; both these plays demonstrate the tension that Coward used in much of his work - that the British gentry cannot successfully mix with bohemians of artistic temperament. Like Oscar Wilde, Coward used wit to prick the balloons of pomp and hypocrisy. But behind the wit lies seriousness of purpose: the crushing of personal identity for the sake of conformity. This is an eternal and universal theme - but if we can have fun unravel it, all the better.
Kristin Scott Thomas is at her fabulously dour, miserable, and yes, ugly best as mother in law with a plan for her son that specifically excludes Larita - played with charm and strength and depth by a blonde-wigged Jessica Biel. Ben Barnes delivers a terrific portrait of the young man whose family has cushioned him from reality - and made him the weaker for it. Superbly minimalist Colin Firth gives a great deal of meaning to his role as the WWI vet whose terrible experiences have left him isolated within his own shell, who finds fresh air to breathe when Larita opens the windows ...
Marvellous support work, too, from Kris Marshall as the not too predictable butler; the key roles of Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson) are memorably portrayed as real people - when they could have been thrown away as devices.
Elliott uses some flourishes in giving us a fresh experience of a period film, including the musical and visual segues, and well pitched pace. Easy Virtue is easy to enjoy.
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READ AND HEAR the
INTERVIEW WITH STEPH ELLIOTT & SHERIDAN JOBBINS
EASY VIRTUE (PG)
CAST: Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson, Kris Marshall, Christian Brassington, Charlotte Riley, Jim McManus, Pip Torrens
PRODUCER: Joseph Abrams, James D. Stern, Barnaby Thompson
DIRECTOR: Stephan Elliott
SCRIPT: Stephan Elliott, Sheridan Jobbins (play by Noel Coward)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Martin Kenzie
EDITOR: Sue Blainey
MUSIC: Marius De Vries
PRODUCTION DESIGN: John Beard
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 12, 2009