Emily McQueen Govan
Easy Virtue is an adaptation of an early Noel Coward play; a comedy of manners providing a droll and witty look into the life of a staid, snobbish and typically English upper class family. We are introduced to the central couple; the complex Larita Huntingdon (Jessica Biel), America’s first female racing driver and her young, boyish husband John Whittaker (Ben Barnes). Their arrival at John’s family home amongst his decidedly odd family instantly puts the cat among the pigeons and the stage is set for the ensuing battle of wills between Larita and John’s mother Veronica.
The largely dialogue-based material and the grand stately homes on display lend the film a definite air of ‘Britishness,’ placing it within an instantly recognisable genre that allows for the impeccably constructed comedies of an era gone by to flex their sardonic muscles. The film avoids the trap of becoming a stolid vehicle for grand locations and pretty costumes — unlike the recent Brideshead Revisited adaptation — through its use of lovingly crafted characterisation.
The entire cast fulfil their roles with convincing, joyous sincerity. Kristin Scott Thomas is caustically witty and at ease in a role staggeringly different from that of her previous outing in ‘I’ve Loved You So Long’. Meanwhile Jessica Biel and Colin Firth reveal themselves possessing hidden talents, unveiling a previously neglected aptitude for comic timing and earnestness. The slow awakening of the bitterly cynical and war-scarred Colin Firth and the revelation of Larita’s past is sympathetically handled and touching.
The film really comes into its own half-way through its run time, as the showdown between Mrs Whittaker and Larita commences, one of the comedic highlights being the unintended death of the family pet, a creature any discerning audience member is sure to be willing to die from the beginning.
This goofy, irreverent humour complements the more quintessentially dry British brand exhibited from the beginning of the film, as one of John’s sisters remarks “I don’t feel like smiling,” to which the acidic Veronica retorts “You’re English dear, fake it.” The characters are, to some extent, mere stereotypes, of a very black-and-white moral nature, the two younger unmarried sisters being delightfully infuriating. However, this adds to the films winning comedic premise and makes no pretence as to who audiences are to cheer.
The soundtrack is one of the few things that fails to please. When a director feels the need to include a 1920s Jazz style rendition of Tom Jones’ Sex Bomb, one gets suspicious. Still, mustn’t grumble. Audiences should look forward to more adaptations of Noel Coward’s excellent work, as fine an alchemist of beauty and comedy as there ever was. As it stands, Easy Virtue has the potential to fully reinstate audiences’ faith in costume dramas. This film, set in the roaring twenties, is a roaring success.