Easy Virtue, steeped in Noel Coward banter, is a delight. And, with Jessica Biel starring as a 1929 sophisticate, a surprise. Add in a sumptuous setting on an English country manor and the fact that Keira Knightley is nowhere to be found, and this third major release from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert writer-director Stephan Elliott breezily compensates for its minor flaws.
One of those flaws is its mood swings between wackiness and solemnity, the former of which sometimes recalls Looney Tunes larks and the latter providing the only instances in which the radiant Biel struggles. Easy Virtue is actually the second film adaptation of Coward’s play, and it couldn’t be more different from the first: a silent 1928 offering from Alfred Hitchcock that posed the story as a thriller. In Elliott’s version, co-scripted by freshman Sheridan Jobbins, the mystery remains, but it’s played as more of a footnote to the central clash-with-the-in-laws comedy.
Biel plays Larita, a blond, bobbed American who’s made headlines for being the world’s first female racecar driver. After one race she locks eyes with John Whittaker (Ben Barnes)—in an opening sepia-toned sequence that’s wonderfully old-tymey until Elliott cheesily slow-mo’s the couple’s glance—and soon the young Brit is writing to his upper-crust family that he’s married, in their words, “that floozy.” John brings Larita home to meet the parents (Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth) and his sisters, Hilda and Marion (Kimberley Nixon and Katherine Parkinson), as well as the lifelong friend who had been his intended, Sarah (Charlotte Riley).
Initially, all but Mum are entranced by Larita. “You look so expensive!” Hilda accurately exclaims. But the first Mrs. Whittaker is not amused for a number of reasons, continually knocking off points over everything from Larita being a Yank to what she regards as a ridiculous allergy to pollen. Larita tries to play along but is increasingly bored and eager to get John back to city life. Regardless of her daughter-in-law’s efforts, Mrs. Whittaker keeps clucking. John’s father, however—a haunted war veteran who, like Larita, tries to make the ennui tolerable with quips and increasing detachment—sees a kindred soul. Even when the new girl’s novelty wears off for the rest of the family once the aforementioned dirty laundry is aired, he remains on her side.
You may not believe in the romance between Larita and the very dull John, but anyone amused by words such as “codswallop,” snappy repartee, and the songbook of Cole Porter will consider Easy Virtue a pleasure from start to finish. Elliott stylizes the film beyond period finery, with distorted reflections caught in spoons and 8-balls, long, lustful tracking shots of John’s gleaming Frazer Nash BMW, and farcical staging. Touches of modernity, too, occasionally sneak in—have you ever wondered how Tom Jones’ “Sex Bomb” would sound Gershwin-style?
When the high jinks turn to more serious matters, the film is a bit more wobbly but is still affecting in its reflection of fish-out-of-water loneliness. The characters who ultimately ride off into the night may not be the ones you’re expecting, but their sprint for freedom is palpable—and, of course, quite chic.