Directed by: Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert)
Starring: Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Kimberley Nixon, Kris Marshall
Stephan Elliott’s Easy Virtue answers the question, “Whatever became of the guy who made The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)?” Well, after a couple of huge disasters (Welcome to Woop Woop (1997) and Eye of the Beholder (1999)), deciding to walk away from movies altogether and a nearly fatal skiing accident, Elliott is back with a vengeance. He’s also back with a movie that’s not only a worthy successor to Priscilla, it may be even better.
Don’t be put off by the fact that Easy Virtue is a period piece based on a 1924 Noël Coward play. This isn’t your average upper-class British comedy of manners—though it might be called a comedy of bad manners. And it certainly isn’t your standard stage play on film. In fact, the film is very much a “reimagining” of Coward’s play. The basic plot and most of the structure are retained, but the changes are significant. In many ways, Elliott and co-writer Sheridan Jobbins have rethought Coward’s early, melodramatic play in terms that are in keeping with Coward’s more mature comedies and satires—and put their own spin on it.
How much of a spin have Elliott and Jobbins put on Coward’s play? Well, quite a lot. Let’s start with the film’s quirky soundtrack, played by what is introduced at the end of the film as the Easy Virtue Orchestra, a collection of musicians who are apt to remind some of the Bonzo Dog Band or the Temperance Seven, playing “hot jazz” in a 1920s style. But where the Bonzos or the Seven tended to limit their forays into this realm to actual period songs, we here find ourselves being treated to ‘20s renditions of Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” and Billy Ocean’s “When the Going Gets Tough.” It’s not all that radical. There are some actual Coward tunes—“Mad About the Boy,” “A Room With a View,” “Mad Dogs and Englishman”—and other vaguely in-period songs, including an hysterical use of “All God’s Chillun’ Got Rhythm” in the film’s funniest (and most twisted) scene.
Moreover, they’ve built on the characters, giving them depth they don’t have in the original. Turning Colin Firth’s character into an embittered “Lost Generation” survivor of WWI is a masterstroke. Similarly bold and fine changes involving Jessica Biel’s character—making her a racecar driver, altering the circumstances of her notoriety, yet throwing in a nude cubist painting of her as a nod to Coward—also improve on the original. The aforementioned “All God’s Chillun’” scene may have nothing to do with Noël Coward, but it’s drawn from one of the great legends of the British stage of the same era (involving Ralph Richardson and a Pekingese), which is perhaps why it and all the other embellishments fit in so seamlessly.
The film is still the story of what happens when a young man (Ben Barnes, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) arrives at his slowly crumbling stately home in England with a shocking American bride (Jessica Biel) in tow—a situation made just that much more intolerable for his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), since she’d planned on marrying him off to the daughter of wealthy gentry to save the ancestral estate. His father (Colin Firth), on the other hand, is quietly amused by it all. In essence, it’s a story about the hidebound past coming up against the modern age, and, as with most such stories, the modern age is seen in the better light. But Easy Virtue is better than that. Its portrait of the characters who desperately cling to a past that probably never really existed is not without humor or sympathy.
Elliott’s film is stylish beyond words, but its style is always grounded in what works for the good of the film. Consider the opening that moves from a newsreel to a silent movie to a golden-hued fantasy—only to come smack up against the reality of life in England. It’s terrific filmmaking, because it’s also completely functional. In addition, there’s not a false performance in the film—and yes, I’m including Jessica Biel in that. This is a Jessica Biel we’ve never seen before: warm, funny, sophisticated, sexy and vulnerable.
In most respects Easy Virtue is an iconoclastic comedy—more iconoclastic in fact than just about anything I’ve seen in a while—but it’s finally not without its serious side. And it’s that serious side that gives the film its bite and moves it into the realm of a truly great movie. Do not miss this one. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief partial nudity and smoking throughout.