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Easy Virtue

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Easy Virtue
Released on Friday, Nov 7 2008

Director: Stephan Elliott
Screenwriters: Stephan Elliott, Sheridan Jobbins
Starring: Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Ben Barnes, Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson
Running Time: 97 mins
Certificate: PG

"Anyone for tennis?" coos Jessica Biel in her Yankee drawl, mocking the Pimms O'clock world of the die-hard British bluebloods who are her in-laws in Easy Virtue. Essentially, this '20s-set comedy is Meet the Parents in period costume, which is fun, but doesn't do full justice to Noel Coward's original play. Biel does a sterling job as the heroine Larita, whose scandalous past threatens her marriage to fresh-faced toff John Whittaker (Ben Barnes, aka Prince Caspian). But in revising all of the dirty details, director (and co-writer) Stephan Elliott takes the edge off the satire.

Very little is known about Larita until she turns up at the stately home of the Whittaker family, hanging stylishly off John's arm - and with a ring on her finger. As the priggish Mrs Whittaker, Kristin Scott Thomas steals the scene with a simple expression of utter bewilderment as she takes in all the bleached blondeness and bias-cut garb. This warps into a look of mild disgust when Larita speaks, prompting the hollow response: "Oh. You’re American…" She might as well be firing a starter gun, for what proceeds is an all-out war, conducted largely by stealth.

Colin Firth is the conscientious objector as Mr Whittaker. He intervenes only with scathing quips as the missus frets over Larita, the dining room place settings and, by extension, her social standing. Being a veteran of World War I, he finds all of this futile and, sensing that Larita is plagued by her own demons, empathises more with her. Unfortunately, Elliott and his co-writer Sheridan Jobbins dig too deep for the hidden tragedy of the situation. For one thing, Mr Whittaker's constant brooding jars with an otherwise sprightly tone. But more importantly, making Larita a widow rather than a divorcée completely changes the intent of Coward's story.

In the play (and Alfred Hitchcock’s silent 1928 film), it is the bitter break-up of Larita's first marriage that marks her as a woman of 'easy virtue'. The absurdity of that set against Mrs Whittaker's own deception (about the family's financial status) is what gives the comedy teeth. As a widow, Larita may be more sympathetic but she is also fighting her battle against social hypocrisy from a rear-guard position. Biel does a good job of showing up Larita's insecurities so the sob story is unnecessary. Kristin Scott Thomas has a much tougher job not to look like the ruthless biddy, hand-bagging a woman when she's down. Instead she saves the day, conveying as much vulnerability as spite whilst trying desperately to preserve the old way of things.

At least Elliott has one up on Hitchcock in the sound department; making the most of Coward's artful dialogue. Again it is Thomas who stands out, flinging those one-liners like a dainty, pearl dagger. Firth has his moments too, opting for a blunt delivery that is usually met with polite silence. Elliott clearly revels in the bitchiness, not surprising since he is the man behind 1994 hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Other contemporary flourishes, including twee British jazz renditions of 'Car Wash' and 'Sex Bomb' (sounds like 'Sex Baumb') are merely distracting. A scene where Larita accidentally squashes Mrs Whittaker's pet Chihuahua could’ve been lifted straight from any Ben Stiller rom-com. Theatre buffs will doubtless loathe this cheeky update. It certainly falls short of the satire Coward wrote, but as a simple culture-clash comedy, it just about passes muster.


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