Kristin Scott Thomas
Noel Cowards 1924 play Easy Virtue seems a curious choice for the comeback of Australian film-maker Stephan Elliott after nine years out of the business. What would the director of cult movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which brought new meaning to camping in the outback, do with this early, little-known work by the master satirist of English upper-crust mores?
The prelude to the story is neatly sketched during the credits sequence, with grainy monochrome film of the Monte Carlo Grand Prix where the young upper-middle-class Englishman John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) and the glamorous American racing-car driver Larita (Jessica Biel) fall in love at first sight. After a whirlwind romance, he brings his new bride back to meet his eccentric, dysfunctional family at their stately home in their English country home.
Larita not only has to cope with the culture shock but with a hostile mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her two daughters, all of whom are aghast that their darling son/brother has married someone not only from outside their class but who is, horror of horrors, from the United States. Larita finds more sympathy from Johns father (Colin Firth), an emotionally scarred survivor of the Great War, and surprisingly from Johns ex-girlfriend, as well as the house servants. A battle of wits ensues between Larita and Mrs Whittaker to control Johns allegiances, against the background of English country rituals such as village amateur dramatics, fox-hunting and grouse-shooting, leading to a showdown at the Christmas charity ball.
The film starts off as a comedy of manners with plenty of jokes derived from the Anglo-American culture clash, class differences and feminine rivalry, though the broad humour is often closer to farce than Cowards witty banter (such as Larita accidentally killing the family poodle by sitting on it). Later it becomes more serious as loyalties are tested and feelings become hurt, with an unconvincing finale involving sensational revelations about Laritas past and the Whittakers finances. The underlying theme is the post-World War I change of era as brash American dynamism takes over from stultifying British tradition, but the treatment is unsubtle and the tone uneven.
The flashy photography of Martin Kenzie, with optical trickery introduced for its own sake rather than for dramatic reasons, is fun to begin with but becomes a bit irritating after a while. And the music by Marius de Vries (who scored Baz Luhrmanns controversially anachronistic Moulin Rouge!) is a curious mix of period songs given a modern makeover and contemporary songs turned into a crooning pastiche of the likes of Coward and Cole Porter you certainly wont have heard Car Wash or Sex Bomb like this before.
The performances are varied, with the older generation acting the socks off the young upstarts. Kristin Scott Thomas squeezes the full potential out of Mrs Whittakers acid putdowns and snobbish condescension with a deliciously dry delivery, while Colin Firth is also very funny as her unkempt cynical husband, though the depression brought on by his war experiences is rather overstated. Jessica Biel is not bad as Larita, a fast woman of easy virtue who has no time for conventional hypocrisy, but lacks a little horsepower, and Ben Barnes makes a rather wet, vapid John, surely not worth fighting over. And Kris Marshall is the scene-stealing butler Furber who hints at a secret life of subversion.
Overall the film, like its feisty heroine, is fun and easy on the eye but – dare I say it – lacks the true class which always marks out Coward’s work.P>