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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 !!
*** 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 who is still probably best known for being the virtuous
good girl preacher's kid Mary Camden from 7th Heaven gets to tackle a
classic Noel Coward role in one of his early plays Easy Virtue. She's
the American interloper in an English aristocratic family and she's
unsettling to family matriarch Kristin Scott-Thomas.
Noel Coward who wrote about these upper classes and twitted their pretensions with such wit that they kept coming back for more and kind of adopted him in a way they never adopted Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw, was a kid who grew up in poverty and made his way out through his many talents to entertain. Those in the upper classes who took Coward to their hearts felt themselves to be modern, progressive, and generally with it in terms of social trends. The Whittakers in Easy Virtue are some other kind of aristocrats, not anybody like that hangs out at the parties we invite Noel to entertain at.
What Amelia Earhart is to aviation, Jessica Biel's character is to auto racing. She's a young widow from the Detroit area and of course being from that area has an interest in motor cars and auto racing. She's fresh from winning at Monte Carlo and she's also won young Ben Barnes the heir to the Whittaker name and estates. Which might not be all that much, there's a name and a lot of land and debts.
When Barnes brings Biel home to the family they are mortified by her classless American ways in the sense of not recognizing class distinctions. It was one of those things we got rid of after 1776, no titles of nobility. We had our aristocrats, but that's a whole other story.
Scott-Thomas dominates the family, trying desperately to keep the estate together. Her husband Colin Firth served in World War I and the horror of it did something to him. It probably not only has to do with the horror of that trench war slaughter, but the fact that class distinctions tend to melt in combat. He and Biel kind of like each other, but it's his wife who rules the Whittaker roost now.
A scandal from the past threatens to disrupt the Barnes/Biel marriage and that forms the crux on which the story turns. In fact at the end its really up to the viewer to figure out what will eventually happen with the two of them.
This is the second film adaption of Easy Virtue, the first was a silent film from 1928 and was directed by a young Alfred Hitchcock. Easy Virtue was actually premiered in America before London in 1924 and starred the great American stage actress Jane Cowl. I guess Coward figured with an American heroine it was best to get it before the American theatergoers before the British ones.
This version of Easy Virtue is directed flawlessly by Stephen Elliot who made a fine use of period music by Noel Coward, Cole Porter and others and in the end over the credits really mocked the upper classes in the Coward tradition by playing When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going. I believe Elliott was trying to say those classes, especially the ones we see here might not have the right stuff any more.
And of course there's the obligatory fox hunt which the upper classes indulged in, still do. As Oscar Wilde said, "the unspeakable after the uneatable."
Any chance for the younger generation to be exposed to Noel Coward is worth seeing.
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