Thursday, June 18, 2009

Easy Virtue: Let's misbehave!

Easy Virtue (2008) • View trailer for Easy Virtue
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.18.09
Buy DVD: Easy Virtue • Buy Blu-Ray: Easy Virtue [Blu-ray]

Stephan Elliott, the sassy Aussie filmmaker long absent from the screen  and still fondly remembered for his breakout hit, 1994's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert  has returned with a project perfectly suited to his talents: a bubbly re-imagining of Noel Coward's Easy Virtue.

Although the characters and primary plot elements are retained from the play Coward wrote back in 1924, the tone and various relationship dynamics  not to mention Elliott's directorial approach  owe much more to Robert Altman's Gosford Park, the delightful 2001 blend of Agatha Christie and TV's Upstairs, Downstairs.
While trying to build a rapoort with her new mother-in-law, Larita (Jessica
Biel, right) unwittingly gives yet another opening to Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin
Scott Thomas) during their chat in the family's greenhouse ... at which point
the older woman learns that her son's new wife is allergic to flowers. Mrs.
Whittaker's weak spot, in turn, is her dog...

Elliott's take on Easy Virtue has a similar brew of arch one-liners, devastating putdowns and biting observations about condescending British aristocrats who wield their birthrights like blunt instruments. This atmospheric shift  Elliott co-wrote the screenplay with Sheridan Jobbins  results in a film that's more breezily entertaining than Coward's play, which, despite its deliciously scathing social commentary, audiences at the time found as cold and foreboding as Wuthering Heights.

Indeed, the austere play's only previous trip to the big screen came courtesy of no less a talent than Alfred Hitchcock, who made a faithful silent adaptation in 1927. The famed director remained unsatisfied with this film for the rest of his career, no doubt because the absence of sound made it nearly impossible to do justice to Coward's rapier wit and felicity of language. (But since Hitchcock was forced to compensate, he still left several strong impressions with his largely silent scene constructions.)

Elliott gives us modern viewers a heroine to admire in Larita (Jessica Biel), a sexy and avant-garde American introduced as she scandalizes 1930s Britain by winning the race at Monte Carlo, only to be disqualified because she concealed her gender. But all is not lost at that finish line, as she attracts the eye of young John Whittaker (Ben Barnes, appropriately callow); the result is love at first sight, and the two quickly wed.

Her adventurous spirit and scandal-hued lifestyle not-withstanding, Larita recoils from her next test: meeting John's family  and, she hopes, being accepted by them  at their quintessential British ancestral mansion and estate.

John does his best to warn her, and Larita always is up for a challenge ... but even she wilts beneath the contemptuous hauteur of John's mother, the imperious Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas).

(Considering Hitchcock's fondness for vicious, domineering mother figures in films such as Rebecca, Notorious, Psycho and Marnie, one can see why he'd have been intrigued by Noel Coward's Mrs. Whittaker.)

At first blush, John's family seems harmlessly eccentric. (If only!) Elder daughter Marion (Katherine Parkinson) nervously fingers a crucifix necklace and pines for a lost love; impressionable younger daughter Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) devours lurid newspaper stories and finds the concept of Larita most appealing.

John's father (Colin Firth), a wayward soul who never recovered from the post-traumatic stress of World War I, watches from the sidelines while serving as something of a mordant one-man Greek chorus. He essentially becomes Coward's voice, with an endless series of remarks  many quite funny, and all delivered with rapier thrusts  that belittle both himself and his calcified family.

Even the family butler, Furber (Kris Marshall), has hidden depths; he's clearly contemptuous of the Whittaker women, and thus immediately bonds with Larita ... as does the rest of the mansion's dwindling staff.

Ah, and that's the unspoken secret that fuels Mrs. Whittaker's despair over the way John has "thrown his life away" on what she perceives to be a wanton woman. Unknown to John, the Whittaker estate is mortgaged to the hilt, the family all but destitute while desperately trying to maintain appearances.

Having long waited for her 'golden boy' son to return and assume the family responsibilities that his father abdicated years before  although we can't help but wonder how even John could "fix" the financial catastrophe  Mrs. Whittaker views Larita as The Enemy.

Horror of horrors, this new wife even announces their intention  after a "short visit"  to live in London, rather than at the family home!

And thus the battle lines are drawn, and the games begin: the irrepressible Larita and her infectious charm on one side, the flint-gazed Mrs. Whittaker and her waspish disapproval on the other. The first move kicks off when, upon first hearing Larita speak, Mrs. Whittaker rolls her eyes and mutters, "Oh, God; you're American."

The conflict evolves in unexpected directions, with skirmishes taking place at the varied fetes, dances and society gatherings  and even a fox hunt  that occupy the idle rich in this environment. Mrs. Whittaker's battle plan is both deliberate and subtle: the former in little acts of spite, such as filling Larita and John's bedroom with flowers to which the younger woman is allergic; the latter in a wheedling process that extends the newlyweds' stay week by agonizing week.

Larita is not without allies, but she finds that even her indomitable spirit is weakening in such an oppressive environment.

Although Biel has this film's showiest role  and raised my eyebrows by receiving top billing over her two vastly more talented co-stars  Scott Thomas cuts a much more memorable figure. She perfectly fits the environment, her regal bearing reflecting Mrs. Whittaker's certain belief that privilege is deserved by those who are naturally superior to others. Her smile, superficial and dangerous, usually leads to another vicious shot across somebody's bow.

Mrs. Whittaker is a monster, pure and simple, and if we frequently laugh at her cruelly catty remarks, it's only because they're not directed at us.

Biel is appropriately brash, flirty and saucy in the early stages, and she successfully channels Larita's hidden depths when the story reaches its far more serious third act. If Biel seems a bit out of place  perhaps too emancipated, perhaps too much a product of 21st century wishful thinking  she's only delivering what the script demands. We can't help but sympathize with her, and Biel certainly doesn't abuse our trust.

Firth is the quiet study with the greatest depth of these characters: a man who instantly perceives Larita's concealed personal tragedy because he has endured plenty of his own. The dichotomy here is deliberately ironic: Larita wants only to become a part of this family, while Mr. Whittaker just as desperately wishes to escape it. Firth has the most aching wistful smile, and he puts it to great use as this narrative progresses.

Marshall is a hoot as the butler who isn't nearly as dour as we initially believe, and Charlotte Riley makes the most of her limited screen time as Sarah, the neighbor whom John always was "supposed" to marry.

Parkinson and Nixon, vexingly, are a mass of contradictions as John's sisters. Their allegiances shift without warning from scene to scene, and we're never sure whether they're on Larita's side or plotting against her. And even when that uncertainly vanishes, in the final act, we've little justification for the behavior displayed by Marion and Hilda.

As he did with Priscilla, Elliott employs inventive staging and scene transitions. He and cinematographer Martin Kenzie frequently shoot through windows or in and around a room's furniture, or set up a conversation between one individual in frame as s/he speaks to the mirrored reflection of another. It's clever in the same way that Joe Wright's tracking shots were so delightful in 2005's Pride and Prejudice.

Elliott's characters also have a disarming tendency to break into a few lines of song, often Cole Porter, but quite memorably Billy Ocean during the end credits. The result is an occasional warm echo of Moulin Rouge (with which this film's composer, Marius de Vries, also was involved).

Charlotte Walker's costume design ranges from "shabby chic" (for Firth) to sumptuous, particularly for the many luxurious gowns that Biel wears so well.

One must be careful about expectations; Elliott sets us up to anticipate certain things, and then quite spectacularly pulls the rug out from beneath us. We must remember, as well, that for all its giddy outrageousness, Priscilla was not without moments of heartbreak.

All that said, this variation on Easy Virtue isn't for all tastes; viewers drawn to noisy summer fare are apt to be bored into slumber. But those who still remember key scenes from Gosford Park or Kenneth Branagh's cheeky 2000 update of Shakespeare's Love's Labors Lost  also set in 1930s England  are certain to have a good time watching these characters sink their claws into each other.

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