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Easy Virtue is a very liberal adaptation of Noel Coward's play.
Director Stephan Elliot (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the
Desert) has tried to make the film more contemporary and very distinct
from the Merchant-Ivory school of film.
The story is set in the roaring twenties where John (Ben Barnes) from an aristocratic English family marries Larita (Jessica Biel), an American race driver, after a whirlwind romance in France. However his mother Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas) is none too pleased while John's father Jim (colin Firth) finds a soul mate in Larita. These relationships, including those with John's sisters, make for a very intriguing and entertaining hour and a half, The acting, as could be expected from such a cast is uniformly excellent with perhaps Jessica Biel standing out a little more.
One of Stephan Elliot's nice touches is an anachronistic use of such songs as Car Wash and Sex Bomb, done in a very twenties style. The addition of a hilarious "dog scene" is another nice touch. Fans of Noel Coward (and even Merchant-Ivory) won't be disappointed.
2008 has been a mixed bag thus far as far as character dramas are
concerned, with the majority either lacking in any interesting personas
and the remainder usually lacking in anything remotely fun about the
experience. Thankfully, Easy Virtue takes residence amongst the
minority of this year's examples, blending a wonderful ensemble of
characters and respective performers with plenty of humour, romance and
palpable charm. As a musical per se, which one could place the movie
given the role that music plays in its narrative, the music is catchy,
but always played in the background to what is going on with
characters. So while the numbers certainly don't ever take off, the
harmony created between the film's immediate interests always take
precedence over the aesthetics, no matter how inviting and well done
those elements are implemented. Sure enough, there isn't much in the
way of flaws present within Easy Virtue's two hour runtime outside of
the fact that it can sometimes drag on in terms of plotting.
Nevertheless, despite small pacing problems, Easy Virtue is a
wonderfully breezy, and yet hard hitting portrayal of relationships,
both temporal and unconditional.
Where each of these sources of love comes from it seems is where the writers seem most interested in exploring; rather than sticking to the genre's more conventional set of rules, the movie instead takes a familiar, albeit refreshing route. Telling the story of Larita (Jessica Biel), an American race-car driver newly wed to love of her life John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) as she moves into her husband's inherited estate for the holidays, Easy Virtue take the romantic comedy and heats things up a little. The centrepiece of the story revolves around the idea that John's English aristocratic family either immediately resents Larita's presence or soon adheres to this mind-frame. This conflict draws most firmly from John's mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) who takes an especially vindictive and callous attitude towards her big-eyed, fresh faced and glamorously intimidating daughter in law.
This relationship, although not falling far from the genre's tree of ideas and structure, nevertheless does well to keep things grounded and believable. Very rarely are theatrics employed to establish the characters' obvious confliction, and as such both grow as the movie wears on, allowing not just drama to unfold from the proceedings, but comedy also. To say that Easy Virtue is a funny movie would be somewhat of an exaggeration; this isn't a comedy by any means, but it's not a straight forward drama or romance either. Instead director Stephen Elliot manages to do what so little directors of the genre actually succeed in implementing; a fine blend of all three ingredients whilst at the same time keeping characterisation consistent and engaging. Again these ingredients are most fully realised in the triangle of mother/son and the new girl in his life, with each ingredient sharing enough screen time to warrant interest; Easy Virtue isn't a funny movie no it's a funny, heart-warming and delightfully engrossing movie with plenty of intelligent drama and aesthetics.
Nevertheless, regardless of genre tagging, and the tricky balancing act involved in handling such a mix, the real potency of heart present that makes Easy Virtue such a joy to watch is simply through its characters and their relationships together. Mentioned above, the centrepiece of this endlessly amusing mix of character is the dynamic between Larita and her new mother in law. What's most interesting about this pairing however doesn't necessarily always reside in their obviously conflictive facades, but within the thematic subtext that each brings to the story regarding lover and son John. Dealing primarily with the complexities of human relationships, and specifically love, the writers explore the different kinds of love and how they are more often than not wrongly interpreted or received. What's most interesting about the central figures then is that each seems to have swapped their traditional roles for the others; ostensibly Larita is seen a gold-digging, naïve lover who is only out for a short jog, whilst Mrs. Whittaker is instead presented as John's unconditional love source, undeniably in it for the long term. This paper thin appearance however is what Easy Virtue sets out to look past, and the results are both rewarding and intriguing, giving ample substance to back up the laughs.
Of course all of this would go to waste if given to less than capable performers to get across not just their own dynamic personas, but the relations and unique chemistry that they share together. Featuring a huge ensemble of recognisable British talents, along with the impressive Jessica Biel, it would take far too long a paragraph to go through each individually and analyse their performances, so I will simply cut a farily large corner and say that the entirety of the cast here do a wonderful job with each of their respective roles. Of notable interest is the always compelling Colin Firth as a rather withdrawn and bored husband, Ben Barnes who plays youthful, energetic and distinctly naïve John to a fine point and Kristen Scott Thomas who often parallels her sombre role in recent French production I've Loved You So Long. All of these performances however are just the tip of what is a surprisingly effective little treat for anyone looking for good adult fun, with plenty of intelligent humour and romance to boot. Sure enough there are some problems with pacing and over-emphasis on theatrical drama at rare occasions that clash with the film's otherwise consistently grounded tone, but these elements are far and few between each of the much more successful moments. Fun, engaging and entirely memorable, Easy Virtue is a rarity these days, so I cannot recommend it enough.
- A review by Jamie Robert Ward (http://www.invocus.net)
It is not uncommon in a film to see British "stiff upper lip"
challenged and outflanked by an outsider - normally an American. As a
Brit you learn to put aside any feelings of protectiveness and
sensitivity and try to give the film it's fair credit when such a story
is presented to you.
In the case of this film - Easy Virtue - this is not difficult to do as it is a well acted gem of a period piece that overcomes any of the initial worries about stereotypes and charms and amuses all the way through.
Kirstin Scott Thomas is superb as the glacial matriarch, Colin Firth detached and louche as her distant husband, Jessica Biel believable as the breath of fresh air ( gust of cold wind ) introduced into the family by the eager but naive son.
Kris Marshall gives an amusing performance as the world weary - seen it all butler and as a whole this is a good enjoyable film.
Taken as it is from a Noel Coward play, I am not sufficiently qualifies to comment on how much , or little, the film has changed the spirit of the play - I suspect not a lot as Mr Coward delighted in ridiculing the sensibilities of the British gentry and if the stiff upper lip is going to be ridiculed by anyone better that it is a Brit !!
From the flamboyant director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, this sublime adaptation of Noel Coward's tragic-comic play zings with dazzling wit and impeccable timing delivered by acting of the highest order. Who knew Jessica Biel could be so delicious as the American interloping fallen woman? Among the British stars, Colin Firth provides the counterpoint gravitas as a WWI surviving member of the "lost generation" who turns the tables on his insufferable wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) and besotted son. Easily one of the most entertaining movies of the past several years, it deserved the genuine spontaneous standing ovation at the world premiere screening I attended at the Toronto film festival. Scott Thomas is devastating in a totally different French-speaking role in "I've loved you for so long", for which she deserves an Oscar nomination. But see this for arch Brit humor at its finest.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Noël Coward wrote "Easy Virtue", the same summer he wrote "Hay Fever".
It was produced several years later in the wake of his other great
melodrama, "The Vortex". In his autobiography, "Present Indicative",
Coward says that his object in writing the play was to present a comedy
in the structure of a tragedy "to compare the déclassée woman of to-day
with the more flamboyant demi-mondaine of the 1890's," - one in which
he deliberately attacked the "smug attitude of Larita's in-laws." In
short, Noël Coward wrote "Meet the Parents" in 1924.
That clash of culture, set in a time of almost identical financial boom and bust, is at the heart of Stephan Elliott's excellent adaptation. There is nothing 'liberal' or 'cheap' about it. "Easy Virtue" is all the things a Noël Coward film should be - it's smart, sexy and shrewd.
This is the story of a young man, John Whittaker played by Ben Barnes, who brings home a thoroughly inappropriate wife, Larita (Jessica Biel). You can sympathize with him - she's gorgeous, but basically he's brought a giraffe to Cambridgshire. His mother, Mrs Whittaker (in a diamond cut performance by Kristin Scott-Thomas) is not amused. Underscoring it all is a deftly sardonic performance by Colin Firth as the emotionally absent head of the household, Mr Whittaker. What happens to them all is a tragedy of time and place, but, like the fate of the family pet, it's also hilarious and satisfying.
Stephan Elliott was a brilliant choice for this film. Coward was the consummate inside outsider - the son of a clerk who mingled with aristocracy. Stephan Elliott is an Australian living in London - moving in the rare circle of celebrity and wealth. They are both masters of comic subversion.
Elliott has been true to Coward's desire to present a thoroughly contemporary film. His soundtrack, score and the subtle use of special effects all show us that this is a film to be taken lightly, while the characters played by Colin Firth and Kristin Scott-Thomas give us the weight and emotional resonance to let us know that they are serious.
But the film belongs to Biel. She delivers all the spirit and energy of an American snowboarder, with all the elegant sophistication of an old time screen siren. She is the new world 'blowing in' to the old and is tremendously sympathetic with it.
Add to that Ben Barnes' growing strength as an actor, and immense appeal to younger audiences and you have a film that will introduce a whole new generation to the romance of period films, while satisfying older fans that there is still life in the genre yet.
Brilliant, sparkling, joyful and sad, passionate and exciting, sweet and sour, elegant, refined and superbly ungraceful at the same time: contrasting adjectives are very fit for this captivating movie, which really hits the mark in a superb way. No flaw is to be found: the construction is solid and yet dynamic, highly-range acting is offered by the whole cast (but let me define Kristin Scott Thomas as sublime). The director creates a really enjoyable product, capable as it is of gaining the favour of the audience and to satisfy the viewer, both from an aesthetic and emotional point of view. The sound and authentic British humour stirring from the beginning to the end, makes one laugh but also think about the necessity to overcome a stuffy traditionalist attitude which make look back to a fossilized but no longer valid past,in order to let the new enter the scene, with all its dramatic potential of change. All certainties are questioned and prove to be dramatically frail. The conflict between the traditional English sobriety and self-control and the non-conformist American way of life gives rise to funny but also thoughtful moments of tension, subtly underlined by witty dialogues and emotionally engaging musical and dancing exchanges. A movie to be seen, heard, and enjoyed in every single part.
John Whittaker (Barnes) is travelling and falls in love with beautiful American divorcée, Larita (Biel). After spontaneously getting married, John brings her back to his stately home in England, where although many warm to her, she is largely frowned upon especially by his formidable mother, Veronica (Scott Thomas), who makes her stay as uncomfortable as possible. Based on the original play by Noel Coward, 'Easy Virtue' encompasses sharp wit, romance and drama; and although it is set in 1920s England, it is far from the typical period drama that might be expected. The soundtrack is slightly risky in places with its rearrangement of contemporary songs to period-music; but this can be overlooked for everything else the film has to offer. Firth supplies brilliant one-liners as the war-weary husband of Veronica. Biel has a captivating presence, bringing sexiness and classic Hollywood glamour to the screen; whilst Thomas, in total opposition, plays the stiff-upper-lipped English mother-in-law to perfection. A thoroughly enjoyable British comedy.
I enjoyed this movie a fair bit more than the average viewer, if
ratings are to be believed.
This very British film is a nice switch from the typical Hollywood romantic comedy, and does not attempt to squeeze within the conventional mold which runs from Four weddings and a Funeral through Love Actually and beyond. The wry influence of the original Noel Coward play becomes fresh again decades later.
Colin Firth is especially adept underplaying the dissolute father in law. He is just there, being, not acting.Totally believable and convincing. When his character is illuminated in a brief soliloquy two thirds of the way through the movie, he is brilliant, and without the ham fisted exposition of so much modern writing, the entire family story is explained, and powerful social commentary on topics from hereditary lands to fox hunting to war to social decay to euthanasia are digested without chewing.
A great example of "Show, not tell".
Jessica Biel is beautiful, here as always, and is never requested to do more than she is capable of. I particularly liked how the film makers did not beat us over the head with her sexuality, going with a muted sensuality most of the movie, except in key scenes where her full power is unleashed to excellent effect.
Kristin Scott Thomas is well cast as the domineering disapproving mother in law, and the British supporting players are treats, though I thought Ben Barnes as the love interest lacked the presence to hold his own in this cast.
We could use more movies like this.
Jessica Biel earns major respect here for taking on a very ambitious
task. "Easy Virtue" marks the first time she headlines her own movie,
acting alongside powerhouses like Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth.
It's based on a stage play by Noel Coward, which coincidentally was
first produced in New York in 1925. Usually I hear the words "stage
play from 1925" and I want to quickly build and jump into a time
machine but the movie is not only painless but it's absolutely lovable
at the same time.
Biel plays Larita, a young American widow in the 1920's making her living as a motorist. She's the first woman ever to win the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo, a feminist long before her time, which attracts the attention of Brit John Whittaker (Ben Barnes). It isn't long before the two are married and he's taking her home to his family's country manor. The matriarch of the house is Veronica Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas), an icey, uppity, bitter woman who never lived much of a life of her own and sees Larita as a gold digger and a whore before she even gets to the house. Larita can tell that her mother-in-law doesn't like her and tries very hard to adapt but only alienates herself further in the process. John's father (Colin Firth), a Colonel in World War 1, is the only one who cuts her any slack. He can't stand his family's stuffiness either and sees Larita as a kindred spirit. A battle of one-ups-man-ship soon takes over the house as Veronica desperately tries to get rid of Larita, who refuses to back down.
The point of the play was a counteraction to British smugness and director Stephan Elliott, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sheridan Jobbins, keeps that basic principle intact. In Larita, summer has found its unlikely hero, a woman who goes by the beat of her own drum, has a strong sense of self, and a backbone. Biel is dazzling in the lead role, contributing a strong will, good comic timing, and an uninhibited playfulness that makes her even sexier. When Larita tangos in front of the family, you can feel the "F You" that she's laying down. Kristin Scott Thomas is perfect as her uptight and scheming foil and Colin Firth is a pro at delivering witty quips as well as digging deeper to communicate the things that haunt the character, whether they be World War 1 or his own family.
The one-liners come fast and frequent. There are also some very wicked bigger laughs, most of which involve Larita's un-candid sexual nature. A panty-less can-can during a war widows revue is a howler. Another big laugh involving a dog will make animal lovers cringe for sure. "Easy Virtue" is a comedy that works, one of the funniest I've seen all year long. The costume design is very good and the manor looks like a nice enough place to spend 2 hours of your time. It's only when Elliott turns on the musical soundtrack, with tunes old enough to make Frank Sinatra look and sound like Eminem, that the movie really starts to show its age. But no matter. If you're looking for a smart comedy with some really excellent performances, "Easy Virtue" is truly virtuous.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When I recently reviewed "Relative Values" I pointed out that it was
the first English-language feature film to have been based on a Noel
Coward play since the 1960s. That film was not, in my view, a great
success, being little more than an examination of outdated social
conventions that no-one cares about any more, and I came to the
conclusion that Coward has largely been ignored by modern film-makers
because he was very much a figure of his own age with little to offer
the modern cinema-goer.
"Easy Virtue", however, has convinced me that I was wrong on this point, even though it is an even older play than "Relative Values", dating from the twenties rather than the fifties. The action takes place around 1928/1929. (References to the First World War having started "fourteen years ago" suggest the earlier date; references to the Valentine's Day Massacre, which occurred on 14th February 1929, suggest the latter). Like "Relative Values" the film is set in a stately home and concerns the romantic lives of the English upper classes. John, the son and heir of the aristocratic Whittaker family, has married a female American racing driver named Larita, whom he met while touring on the continent.
The film explores the differing reactions of John's family to his marriage. His mother, Veronica, is a formidable reactionary who believes passionately in keeping up the traditions of her class. She disapproves strongly of Larita, who has no intention of fitting in with the traditional country-house lifestyle. She is not keen on riding, for example, and objects to fox hunting on moral grounds. Her worst crime in Veronica's eyes, however, is to be poor. Although from the mid nineteenth century onwards it was by no means unknown for young American women to marry into the British nobility, most of these women were drawn from America's own aristocracy of the super-rich, and Larita is not a Rockefeller or Vanderbilt but the daughter of a Detroit car mechanic. The Whittakers are desperately in need of cash to maintain their stately home, and Veronica has long cherished the hope that John will marry Sarah, the daughter of their wealthy neighbour Lord Hurst. Even after his marriage, Veronica keeps hinting to John that it is his duty to divorce Larita and marry Sarah for the good of the family's wealth.
John's father Jim is very different in character, having been deeply scarred by his experiences in the First World War, when most of the men under his command were killed. Although the film is in form a comedy of manners it also has more serious undertones. The 1920s are sometimes thought of as a hedonistic interval between the war-torn 1910s and the economically depressed 1930s, but beneath the brittle surface gaiety of the Jazz Age was a deep sense of loss for the generation that had died on the battlefields and a deep sense of foreboding for the future. (Coward was not the only author to explore these feelings; they also appear in the novels of writers like Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell). After the war Jim disappeared to Paris, where he led a life of debauchery. Although Veronica tracked him down and persuaded him to return home, he no longer relishes the life of a country gentleman. He dresses scruffily, is frequently unshaven and prefers working as a blacksmith or mechanic in his workshop to more traditional country pursuits. He welcomes his son's marriage to Larita, whom he sees as a kindred spirit.
Prior to this one I had never seen any of Jessica Biel's films; I only knew her as a Hollywood beauty from the gossip columns. She is very good here as Larita, a spirited heroine who defends herself valiantly against her monstrous mother-in-law and brings a refreshing breath of fresh air into the closed world of the aristocracy. I did, however, think she was perhaps too young for the role. The script implies that Larita, a widow whose first husband died mysteriously, is considerably older than John, but Ben Barnes (better here than he was in "Prince Caspian") is actually a year older than Biel. The best performances, however, come from Colin Firth and Kristin Scott-Thomas as the ill-matched couple Jim and Veronica. Although they are the same age (both were born in 1960), Firth looks much younger than Scott-Thomas in this film, perhaps emphasising that Veronica's ideas are those of the past whereas Jim represents the future.
Despite some underlying serious themes, "Easy Virtue" is still a comedy, and the script is brilliantly funny. Most of the humour derives from the exchanges between the acid-tongued Veronica and Larita, who can give as good as she gets, and their constant war of one-upmanship. Asked to ride to hounds, Larita does so on a motorbike rather than a horse; there is a running joke about Veronica's attempts to exploit Larita's allergies by using flowers to make her sneeze. Veronica's annoying little dog comes to an unfortunate end. (Chihuahua-lovers should avoid this film and watch "Legally Blonde" instead). There is also some hilariously inappropriate use of music, including more recent songs like "Sex Bomb" performed in best 1920s style. This must be one of the best comedies (indeed, one of the best films) of 2008. 8/10
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