ARTS

  /  

May 22, 2009

Coward caper gets dose of girl power with Elliott’s Virtue

2009 has been a very good year for famed playwright Noel Coward. Just in time for what would have been Coward’s 110th birthday, a new star-studded production of his Blithe Spirit opened on Broadway to general acclaim. Now, a sparkling film adaptation of his 1924 play Easy Virtue travels stateside from Jolly Old England, where it premiered last November. Set in the late 1920s, Easy Virtue is a relatively typical drawing room comedy, but it surpasses expectations with a boisterous soundtrack (featuring songs by Cole Porter and Tom Jones) and the exuberant art direction of Mark Scruton. The film opens with the marriage of John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), the wayward son of British gentry, to Larita, a car-racing, widowed American played by an unfortunately blonde Jessica Biel. Following their hasty nuptials in Monte Carlo, John brings Larita home to meet his judgmental family, including his shrew of a mother (an unusually dowdy Kristin Scott Thomas) and his war-damaged father, played by Colin Firth as an unshaven version of his much-lauded Mr. Darcy. Rounding out the cast is the amusing Christian Brassington as a cow-tipping neighbor, Kris Marshall as an unflappable, alcoholic butler, and a chronically ill-behaved Chihuahua. Director and screenwriter Stephan Elliott (who wrote The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) updates Coward’s original script by adding a dash of Girl Power and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to the Flapper-era meet-the-parents mishegaas. Elliott tends to overplay Larita’s modern sensibility by plunging her into ludicrous situations, such as winning the traditionalist fox hunt on a motorcycle.That said, the women are actually the most fleshed-out characters in this comedy of manners. Mrs. Whittaker’s relationship with Larita is conflicted: she hates Larita for upsetting the country life of the Whittaker home and, at the same time, envies her independence. Meanwhile, Larita attempts to hide a past tragedy that eventually causes the familial conflict to explode. In contrast to these powerful and stubborn women, the men are always ready to bow to the will of the females in their lives. And then there are the costumes. Biel’s slim figure makes her look oh-so-glamorous in period high-waisted trousers and plunging evening gowns. The men look equally dapper in their cream bespoke suits and tuxedoes. If we could all look this good in evening wear, we’d still dress up for dinner. The bright colors and mirrors of the Whittaker household complement the costumes, making Easy Virtue’s world both dizzy and doomed—right on the brink of the Great Depression.The film has faults, to be sure. The sisters Hilda and Marion Whittaker are shrill harpies, each with only one character-defining trait (obsessions with death and a vanishing fiancé, respectively). The humor is at times overly slapstick, distracting from Coward’s snappy dialogue, which is a real shame. This effervescent film may be more Andre than Dom Perignon, but Easy Virtue still manages to deliver a pleasurable two hours.