Sunday, March 22, 2009

Easy Virtue: more nasty than naughty

Easy Virtue did not live up to expectations. Jessica Biel is the best thing about this film. She plays Larita, the unwelcome addition to the English upper crust Whittaker family. Jessica hits just the right note in a version of Noel Coward’s 1925 play that seems off key in many ways. She has the look required of a rally-driving femme fatale, with strong features and typically American teeth. As well she shows the talent to make a bigger splash in the Hollywood star pool in the near future.

Director and Co-writer Stephan Elliott has suggested that the screenplay was softened to make a comedy of manners out of Coward’s very biting social satire. The play has been described as a:
… savage attack on the hypocrisy of the early 1920s — and the way in which it used Victorian standards, already outdated by war, to destroy the lives of those it could not control...
Rediscovered 'Easy Virtue' Is a Revelation : Coward's Early Prime
To a large extent Elliott failed in his endeavour to tone it down.

In post Great War England the landed gentry are fading and failing. Easy Virtue presents them as a nasty, selfish, spiteful, indeed hateful breed. The only really sympathetic character in the dysfunctional Whittaker family is Colin Firth as the defeated and ineffectual lord of the manor.

They exemplify the decline of the British Empire after a generation of young men “took the King’s shilling” in 1914. Neither Whittaker nor his rural lifestyle has recovered. The neighbours all limp their way through the story, both literally and figuratively. Nevertheless, it’s business as usual with a foxhunt, and shooting and black-tie parties.

Ironically the easy virtue is a quality that applies to the English hosts not their notorious new family member. Their complete lack of any personal principles is only matched by their atrociously bad manners. Kristin Scott Thomas’ totally unsympathetic character, Mrs. Whittaker, doesn’t quite fit and I suspect Kristin has been more faithful to Coward’s original. This is a disappointment after her brilliance in the French I’ve loved you for so long. Mrs. Whittaker takes no prisoners and is prepared to destroy her children’s chance at happiness to achieve her own ends.

It’s a decadent society, not in its easy virtue but in its social and financial decay. The children are pampered and dependent. By and large the cast does them justice. Katherine Parkinson, of Doc Martin fame, continues her penchant for eccentric roles as daughter Marion. Kimberley Nixon does not have as much success as her dim witted sister Hilda. Ben Barnes does a more than serviceable job as John Whittaker, Larita’s dashing new husband. He also looks the part.

The film relies as much on visual humour as wit for its comic moments: a risqué can-can, the butt end of a chihuahua, a roll in the hay, a tango, a hovering man servant. As you should expect from a Coward adaptation, there is some very clever dialogue. However, the wit is often lost in the rushed delivery. Elliott seemed reluctant to let the audience savour the lines. Anyway, it’s hardly ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. The audience were not exactly bubbling. Kris Marshall, as the clever young butler Furber, saves many of the scenes with a controlled comic performance.

Its look and the sound track help to make this an enjoyable sensual experience. There are even occasional ventures into musical comedy as Jessica, Ben and Colin sing a few old standards. These include Noel Coward’s ‘Mad About The Boy’ and ‘Room With A View’. The finale is Billy Ocean’s ‘When the Going Gets Tough’.

An anomaly is the spectacular BMW sports car. A German car was hardly the choice so soon after the war. It also seems an anachronism, probably about a decade too early. Maybe BMW were sponsors or paid for product placement. That badge just keeps appearing in close up. The motorcycle also looks a bit like a 1920s BMW.

The movie’s tagline is ‘Let’s Misbehave’. Don't expect a romp or a farce. It is more nasty than naughty.

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