Easy Virtue (2008): Stephan (Adventures of Priscilla) Elliott’s Version of Noel Coward’s Play, Starring Jessica Biel

Rome International Film Fest (World Premiere in Competition)–After several disappointing films (“Eye of the Beholder”), Australian director Stephan Elliott, still best known for the drag comedy “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” is almost back on track with his new screen adaptation of Noel Coward’s play “Easy Virtue,” a comedy of morals and manners that’s diverting and entertaining though not as sharp or witty as it could have been.

This is the second screen version of Coward’s stage work, which was written in 1924, when the playwright was only 23. The young Hitchcock made a silent film version of the play in 1927, which obviously could not have profited from Coward’s noted (and notoriously) smart dialogue.

The sharp-tongued Coward had once noted, “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit,” an observation which could serve as the motto of “Easy Virtue,” one of Coward’s least known works, as well as most of his other works. The trick with the sometimes misunderstood Coward is to detect his ability to critique and dissect the mores of the high-society he is generally assumed to have been celebrating and embracing.

When the story begins, John Whittaker (the handsome British star of “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” and “Stardust”), a young, seemingly rich and spoiled Englishman, returns to the estate owned by his parents with his new, slightly older American wife Larita (Jessica Biel), a sexy, seemingly glamorous and shallow woman he had met, fell madly in love with, and impetuously married in Chicago.

As soon as the couple arrives, Mrs. Whittaker (the always fabulous Kristin Scott Thomas) starts to put Larita down; it’s as if she is allergic to the very presence of her new daughter-in-law. A battle of wits ensues, when Larita realizes Mrs. Whittaker’s games and agenda. Unfazed, she is determined to fight back with her own strategies, or else lose John’s love and respect of her.
During the course of one long and catty weekend, to undermine her rival and competitor Larita, Mrs. Whittaker tries to manipulate every situation, be it a private conversation, family dinner, or public event. At first Larita, a “stranger” and “outsider,” both literally and figuratively, remains frustratingly calm and passive. However, gradually, Larita begins to engineer her own sassy and original counter-attacks, gaining in the process the attention of Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth), a seemingly distant and detached husband-father.

Coward’s play is very much about the deceit of first impressions and the gap between physical appearances and social utterances on the one hand and the more real or substantial essences of his characters on the other. Each of the personas undergoes some kind of moral transformation in the course of the tale.

True to form, the aptly titled “Easy Virtue” contains revelations of secrets about Larita’s past, specifically the charge that she had assisted killing her husband, with a wonderful presentation of the true meaning of romantic love. (Coward may have been one of the first writers to describe and propagate euthanasia).

True to form, the film depicts a series of uniquely British rites and rituals (courtship, hunting, costume balls, and so on) only to undermine and criticize them, often through Larita’s deviant or non-conformist conduct.
As expected, John and Larita’s marriage, never happy in the first place, soon dissolves, and in the grand finale, Larita makes a leap to freedom from the emotionally stifling house with a new admirer in tow.

A rather faithful adaptation to the big screen, the scenario, co-penned by Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins, brings to the fore Coward’s ideas, which are grounded in the reality of the 1920s, but remain surprisingly relevant today.

Stylishly directed by Elliott, “Easy Virtue” benefits from strong performances of most of the cast, from the leads all the way down to the supporting thespians. It takes some time to get used to Biel’s delivery, which is awkward and gauche. However, occasionally, even Biel delivers her punch lines in tune with the part she plays, that of a bright, avant-garde woman who refuses to play by the rules. The multi-nuanced role calls for a more skillful and stylish actress; Biel may be miscast.

Flawless turns are rendered by Kristin Scott Thomas, as the stoic yet neurotic and possessive mother, and Colin Firth, as the war-weary head of the household who spends most of his time in his garage. Also good in smaller but significant roles are Kris Marshall, as Furber, the Whittaker’s butler, Katherine Parkinson, as the eldest daughter Marion, and Kimberly Nixon, as Hilda, the youngest and impressionable daughter.

Considering its relative small budget and short shooting schedule (about seven weeks), “Easy Virtue” boasts an elegant and lavish production, which takes full advantage of its magnificent settings of stately homes, such as Flintham Hall in Nottingham, Englefield House (near Reading in Berkshire), and Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire.

“Easy Virtue” is not “Gosford Park,” and you can only speculate the kind of champagne that Hollywood’s greatest screwball comedy directors–George Cukor, Howard Hawks, Mitchell Leisen, and Preston Sturges, Gregory La Cava–would have made out of Coward’s material.