Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: "Easy Virtue"

I wanted to like "Easy Virtue" more than I did.

This new adaptation of the Noel Coward play -- the first one was in 1928, directed by a fledgling Alfred Hitchcock -- has all the ingredients of a delightful romp. You've got the war between the classes, as upstart American girl marries into upper-crust British society. Plus the fact that she's a proto-feminist who races cars and treasures her independence sets up lots of opportunities for puncturing the hot-air balloon of English aristocracy.

The movie revs up promisingly, but never quite seems to get into gear.

I have to say I think the problem is Jessica Biel in the starring role. She just doesn't have the ear for Coward's erudite dialogue and subtly serrated wit. Particularly standing next to accomplished thespians like Colin Firth and Kristen Scott Thomas, her line readings sound so ... well, read.

Her physical performance plays better. Wearing a platinum blonde bob and killer Roaring' 20s ensembles, Biel struts into a room with verve and style. It's the sort of role where everyone is supposed to stop what they're doing and pay attention to her, and Biel seems to welcome the stares.

Her character, Larita, has just married John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), the impressionable scion of the Whittaker clan. Their expansive summer home looks like something out of a picture book, but there's a rot in the foundation.

Mr. Whittaker (Firth) only reluctantly came home from the Great War, and the way he putters around the estate, unshaven and paying little attention to his wife or even their financial state, suggests that much of him remains permanently abroad.

Mrs. Whittaker (Scott Thomas) is all velvet and steel, an implacable foe hidden by a veneer of perfect manners. She takes an instant dislike to Larita, because of who she is but also because Mrs. Whittaker was vying to marry John off to one of the local aristocracy.

Their two unmarried daughters are Marion and Hilda (Katherine Parkinson and Kimberly Nixon), whose dimming prospects pushes them toward the apathy of their father and the domineering ways of their mother, respectively.

Director/co-writer Stephan Elliott makes an interesting choice to weave period pop songs into his scenes, sometimes even having the characters sing along with tunes like "Mad About the Boy" and "Let's Misbehave." Many of the songs are by Noel Coward and Cole Porter, and the sound is delightful, but sometimes the music intrudes on the film's mood rather than enhancing it.

The most enjoyment to be had out of "Easy Virtue" is the dialogue, especially the escalating ripostes and parries between Larita and Mrs. Whittaker. As more of Larita's past comes to light, their simmering feud turns to all-out war.

Elliott and co-screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins change around much of Coward's play, although the basic architecture remains, as well as the delicious barbs. "Have you had as many lovers as they say?" Mrs. Whittaker asks Larita, who replies, "Of course not. Hardly any of them actually loved me."

It's exchanges like this that make "Easy Virtue," despite its shortcomings, a modest delight.

2.5 stars

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