Details: (PG), 93 mins, In Cinemas 12 March 2009, United Kingdom, English
Synopsis: A young Englishman marries a glamorous American. When he brings her home to meet the parents, she arrives like a blast from the future – blowing their entrenched British stuffiness out the window.
Stephan Elliot's energetic overhaul of a British comedy of errors suffers from two weak leads.
Subtlety is not in director Stephan Elliott’s vocabulary. Think of the Australian’s breakout hit, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Bitchiness, Attitude, verbal cross-fire, excess, melodrama, a brilliant eye for costume and production design – were the undergarments of his three Australian features: Frauds, Priscilla, and Welcome to Woop Woop. Even though only one of them was a major hit, they announced the arrival of an original, bold, adventurous talent.
So when the revived English Ealing Studios and the producers of Easy Virtue, an adaptation of Noel Coward’s play of the same name, were scouting for a director, Elliott appeared to be a match made in cinematic heaven.
And in many ways, he is. Coward’s work is a savage expose of the hypocrisy of the British aristocracy’s adherence to outmoded stuffy Victorian moral values, in the 1920’s (particularly irrelevant following World War I). Elliott’s aversion to period pieces (‘they bore the hell out of me’, he’d proclaimed) augured a fresh risqué approach to the material. The prospect of Coward’s satire and verbal barbs combining with Elliott’s outrageous sensibility boded an entertaining subversion of the period.
Easy Virtue takes place in the ancestral mansion of the Whittaker family, at a time when the prodigal – and only – son John (Ben Barnes) unexpectedly returns from a European jaunt with a feisty, American, racing car driver wife, Larita (Jessica Biel). The unexpected intrusion throws the family – particularly the manipulative matriarch, brilliantly played by Kristin Scott Thomas, into an absolute spin. The inevitable battle of wills and wits that ensues between the two Mrs Whittakers provides the movie’s bedrock.
Scott Thomas, a tested drama romantic lead veteran, reveals a rarely seen uncanny comedic talent in the role of envious ageing matriarch questing to out-smart the youthful, stunning newcomer.
Other performances are impressive. Her daughters, Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson), initially over-awed by Larita, play their descent into loathing, with gusto. In a minor role as the family butler, British actor Kris Marshall (Death at a Funeral, Love Actually) hilariously re-defines the Upstairs/Downstairs relationship, virtually stealing the show in his scenes.
Outrageous irreverence is one of Elliot’s key strengths; he certainly gets the bitchy undercurrents flowing. Some scenes – such as the knickerless Can Can performance at the local war-widow charity show, or the accidental death of Mrs Whittaker’s pet dog and subsequent secret burial are brilliant.
Other performances such as the unanchored meanderings of an unshaven, embittered former womaniser, Mr Whittaker senior (the ubiquitous Colin Firth ), revived by Larita’s arrival, and temporarily redeemed by a brilliant tango, are let down either by script or direction.
In their zeal to make a risque farce with a modern sensibility of Coward’s work by injecting their own slapstick and verbal barb, some of the re-scripting of the original scintillating dialogue and repartee, misfires.
But the real dead weight that prevents a generally enjoyable romp from soaring higher, is the casting of the two romantic leads. In the company of some very gifted British actors and Thomas, Jessica Biel is completely unconvincing. She may be Justin Timberlake’s flame but her one-dimensional, over-hyped take on Larita is irritating, in this company contrasted by the dexterity and suppleness of her European counter-parts.
The chemistry between her and Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian, Chronicles of Narnia, Stardust) runs out of steam half-way through the movie, as the movie shifts gears rather awkwardly, lacking Coward’s buoyancy.
Possibly the duo were foisted on Elliott by the studio and marketing gurus. But one can’t help wondering at the squandered potential. There are certainly brilliant performances and scenes in Elliott’s Easy Virtue but the sum of its parts, could have been buoyed by greater wit and consistency.
However, I do confess a Coward bias. The preview packed house audience at the Cremorne Orpheum preview in Sydney certainly seemed to be enjoying it immensely.
Plenty of blithe spirit in loose adaptation of Noel Coward play.
Aussie director Stephan Elliott took a long sabbatical from filmmaking after his comedy Welcome to Woop Woop and thriller Eye of the Beholder failed to replicate the success of his 1994 breakthrough The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
He made a comeback after a nine-year hiatus with Easy Virtue, an adaptation of the play Noël Coward wrote in 1924, when he was 24. The satire of an English aristocratic family who try to disguise their parlous financial state after World War 1 bombed in the US and the UK, and it grossed a modest $2.8 million in Australia.
It was the second screen version following a 1928 silent film directed by, of all people, Alfred Hitchcock. The result is not a bad film but it’s hampered by dubious casting, hammy acting from the usually reliable Kristin Scott Thomas, and the intrusive device of having the characters sing snippets of Cole Porter songs.
Jessica Biel plays Larita, the brash, glamorous new American wife of upper-class twit John Whittaker (Ben Barnes). His steely, snobbish mother Veronica (Scott Thomas) is aghast to learn that Larita is a divorcee and that the newlyweds intend to live in London, not the family’s shabby country mansion.
Veronica barely manages to keep up appearances, lumbered with a dishevelled, world-weary husband Jim (Colin Firth), who returned shell-shocked from the war, and horrid daughters Marion (Katherine Parkinson) and Hilda (Kimberley Nixon).
Elliott infuses the movie with plenty of Coward’s blithe spirit, while the main dramatic interest centres on Larita’s dark secret and whether, or when, the Whittaker’s veneer of genteel respectability will crumble.
Biel is all light and froth initially, gaily tossing off witty lines like “If I could find your neck, Phillip, I’d wring it,” and she shows a surprising depth as her character suffers assorted indignities. Barnes is only marginally less vapid and dull as he was as Prince Caspian, and there is precious little chemistry or passion between the couple. Firth is fine as the droll but emotionally-wounded Jim, but Scott Thomas is an over-wrought Veronica, with a performance that verges on the edge of hysteria. Generous extras include a commentary by Elliott and co-writer Sheridan Jobbins, deleted scenes and a goof tape.
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