Movie Review: Biel, Firth and Thomas make ‘Virtue’ easy to like

8 Jun

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Easy Virtue (2009) PG-13. 93 min. Directed by: Stephan Elliot. Written by: Stephan Elliot and Sheridan Jobbins. Starring: Colin Firth, Kristen Scott Thomas, Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes. Cinematography:Martin Kenzie. Original music by: Marius Devries.

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Stephan Elliot’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s  Easy Virtue is the epitome of summer art-house; light, frothy, frequently bombastic and as enduring as a popsicle in August. And for most of its running time it’s a perfectly refreshing bit of blockbuster counter-programming. Elliot, the director of the quirky Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (and not much else really) takes all the best satirical bits from Coward’s 1924 play and adds a few new wrinkles to update the plot. He also manages to nab an eclectic cast that include pros like Kristen Scott Thomas and Colin Firth (not slumming it for a change) and the luminous Jessica Biel, who while slightly miscast, shows acting chops not previously seen. With the help of  cinematographer Martin Kenzie, who captures the idylls of posh British manor life in bright, lush details, Elliot crafts a fast-moving, witty comedy that maximizes its cast but ends up minimizing the strength of Coward’s observations by dilluting the tale’s substantial edge.  

American widow and race-car driver Larita, who also happens to have just won the Grand Prix, marries young englishman John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) and travels with him to meet his parents in England on the sprawling Whittaker estate. The in-laws are Veronica (Kristen Scott Thomas) and Colonel Whittaker(Colin Firth) and the former is poised to dislike her son’s wife immediately while the latter takes to Larita right away, sharing a certain kindred sense of wanderlust. Its that wanderlust that has caused some of the rift at home right now; the distant, mopey Colonel once left Veronica after the war to follow more hedonistic pursuits and the stern, icy matriarch went out and brought him back. She also hasn’t let anyone ever forget it.

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Now, Veronica, the Colonel and their two daughters Hilda and Marion, haunt the spacious mansion and grounds along with various cooks and servants who go to and fro while evading the wrath of Lady Whittaker. When young and naive John arrives home with Larita in tow, and his ex-girlfriend and affluent neighbor Sarah Hurst comes visiting the Whittakers, the stage is set for a full out drawing room drama of moral hand-wringing, cross-cultural animosity and withering wit aimed squarely at poor Larita, who turns out be more than capable of fending off her new relations when her hubby is too weak-willed to do so.

The rest of the film is centered around the meltdown that follows when Larita blows through the Whittaker estate and upends decades of stifled emotions and calculated bitterness. Larita trades barbs and banter with Veronica, charms the wait-staff, finds a cofidant in the Colonel and even prepares an American meal for the family in hopes of soothing their venom and mistrust. As she does all these things she finds that John is less of an ally and more interested in pondering what might have been with the fetching Ms. Hurst. No matter what Larita tries, Veronica will not waiver and all but the Colonel seem to turn in her gravitational field of disapproval. Her substantial efforts are overlooked in favor of  small slights like her disapproval of the fox hunt or her accidental killing of the Whittaker family pet (oddly, it involves Biel’s posterior). When the truth is uncovered about Larita’s past marriage and the circumstances of her husband’s death, all of the roiling emotions come to a head upon the eve of Lady Whittaker’s annual party.

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 Easy Virtue’s most obvious strength is its cast. It could be said that seeing all of these distinct and juicy personalities interact is the very reason for the play to exist in the first place. When you graft Kristen Scott Thomas onto the formidable Veronica you have a pillar of self-righteousness that looms above all else in the film. Thomas is absolutely wonderful in her role and she mines the icy interiors of Lady Whittaker for human emotion. She finds it but not in the form of charity or mercy but rather self-pity, spite and posessiveness. Thomas has been warm and downright ethereal in other roles, but here she delights in being grounded and shrew-like, sabotaging her family instead of edifying them in an effort to make sure everyone stays put. She is such a larger-than-life figure that Biel’s Larita is no match for her, and that may be the film’s biggest stumbling block.

Jessica Biel has complained of late about not being cast in more important or meaty acting roles because of her looks. Codswallop. The reason she has yet to land a really pivotal or challenging role is that her acting has never shown her capable of it. Realistically, it makes sense that the very reason she is  Larita is because of her substantial physical beauty and how sublime she looks in the 20s fashions. So much of Easy Virtue is centered around aesthetic pleasures that no one would sue Elliot for making that choice. But, I don’t think that was the case at all. Elliot accentuates Biel’s beauty for sure, but he also opens up the role for her and gives her room to develop her craft. Its a gift that the actress shouldn’t take lightly, because while Biel visibly grows as both an actress and comedienne over the course of the film, her inability to command the role and match Thomas in the more crucial scenes ultimately ends up harming the movie itself.

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Biel captures the impulsiveness of Larita and the care-free spirit, but she gets hung up on the sensitive and strong beating heart underneath that none of the Whittaker’s see. When Elliot alters the details of her previous marriage from the play’s version, it becomes a burden that Biel’s Larita isn’t capable of properly internalizing. To her credit though, Biel is quite funny and endearing and adds plenty of welcome energy when interacting with the still relatively new Ben Barnes, who shines brighter when she shares scenes with him. Its a pleasure to see her leave behind half-baked roles and really give her all to something. Elliot must have known this, and to save her sinking Larita he phoned up Mr. Colin Firth.

Welcome back Mr. Firth. So nice to see you again. I trust you enjoyed your stay in the land of The Last Legion, Where the Truth Lies, and Mama Mia! because over here you have been missed. It’s good to have you back and may I say, this is easily your best work in years. Firth, who set the gold standard for BBC crushes in Pride and Prejudice back in 1995, is playing a character here who reads on the page like the dark-side version of P&P’s Mr. Bennett, the flippant but side-lined patriarch of Elizabeth’s little clan. Instead of playing the character as an old out of touch codger remembering glory days, he approaches the Colonel as man who never lost his wilder nature but merely stages each day as an elaborate attempt at containing it. He wanders off to the garage to work on a motorcycle he knows he will never again ride, and when Larita shows up he considers why he is still pretending at all. Most importantly, his considerable charm and acerbic wit are every bit a worthy adversary for Veronica’s brooding contempt. When he comes to Larita’s aid time and time again, he’s really coming to the aid of the film that would surely sink into trite and predictable rythyms without him. The problem is that his role, as originally written, is just to small to contain Firth and his gifts. So, the writers expand it but in the process begin to develop an almost unsavory relationship between he and his son’s wife.

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Now, the movie doesn’t ever quite go there, but in tipping the scales and introducing something that is just too heavy for Coward’s slender story, Elliot shifts the focus from frivolity and smirky satire to something a bit deeper and potentially emotional. But then, it never delivers any of that. The same is true of the changes made to the fate of Biel’s husband. The  modernized predicament is more of a head-scratcher and it totally eschews the meaning of the film’s title. So, when the culmination of events occur, we as an audience are more conflicted than we need to be. Elliot isn’t ignorant of this fact, but his answer is to just keep the film sailing lightly along and ignore the more questionable elements.

While Easy Virtue really works at the level of pure entertainment, it never follows the trail it starts to blaze. Even  its interesting musical choices–80s ballads like ‘When the Going Gets Tough’ and ‘Sex Bomb’ reconfigured as 20s dance tunes–never really manage to amount to anything. All of the fabulous sets and enticing comical characters serve their purpose but fail to really come into their own. This could have been an adaptation as sumptuous and compelling as the best of Austen, but Elliot is simply content to let it be what it is: an uncomplicated bit of summer silliness that occassionally has day-dreams of something more.

 

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2 Responses to “Movie Review: Biel, Firth and Thomas make ‘Virtue’ easy to like”

  1. The Great Fatsby June 11, 2009 at 11:01 pm #

    You get an extra point just for putting “Codswallop” into a review.

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  1. Ben Barnes Online - Fansite for the actor Ben Barnes - August 11, 2009

    […] Easy Virtue Review. This one is interesting because it’s longer and more […]

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