On Sunday June 26th, we went to the Oriental Theatre to see "Easy
Virtue," a splendid adaptation of the 1925 play by Noel Coward. The
movie stars Jessica Biel, and she is just great in the role of a
liberated American widow making a splash in the European auto-racing
circuit who falls for the son of a British landed family (Ben Barnes).
It certainly helps that Biel looks stunning in the period wardrobe, even
given the blatantly bleached-blonde hairstyle.
Barnes, in the role of John Whittaker, has married Larita (Biel) in a
whirlwind courtship while on holiday in France, and brings his surprise
bride home to his shocked family. Larita knows that acceptance isn't
going to be easy to achieve, but doesn't initially realize what a
ruinous collection of emotional wrecks the Whittaker family is. The
paterfamilias (Colin Firth) was profoundly damaged emotionally and
spiritually in World War I. His first physical, then emotional desertion
of his family left his wife, Veronica (Kristen Scott-Thomas), with
profound feelings of abandonment, disappointment, and spite, which have
blighted the lives of her two already unpromising daughters, Hilda
(Kimberly Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson). Veronica has
sublimated her drives into trying to maintain the dying lifestyle of an
English farming estate, and recognizes Larita as a threat to her plans
to dragoon John into taking over the running of the estate, which also
demands submerging back into the fixed round of hunts, charity fetes,
and social obligations that are the stultifying duties of the local
squirearchy. Larita doesn't realize that war to the knife was declared
as soon as she stepped down from her motorcar, and makes gaffes that
allow Veronica to recruit Hilda and Marion to her side of the struggle.
This script might be a bit surprising for those whose knowledge of
Coward's work is chiefly "Blithe Spirit." While funny, "Easy Virtue" is
often savagely so, and the battle for John's loyalty has all the
viciousness of a razor duel in a dark alley. Coward really seems to have
had the claws out for the English landed gentry. He shows that their
insistence on clinging to the old ways, and the "stiff upper lip",
prevents them from healing and actually cripples them further. By
contrast, Larita, who, as we discover, has had equally bad things happen
to her, has gone on and made a new life for herself. She is, quite
clearly, the wave of the future. The plot has some interesting turns,
and whether or not the ending is happy depends on your point of view and
estimation of what happens after.
Excellent performances by Biel, Scott-Thomas, and Firth, who are ably
supported by the rest of the cast. Lovely period settings, gorgeous
wardrobe, and a fine soundtrack of popular music from the time.
I highly recommend this film for audiences sophisticated enough to
appreciate the humor and emotional nuance. Contains sexual innuendo and
suggestion, some very brief partial nudity, but no violence or foul
language that I caught.