The liberties taken in Easy Virtue, the new screen adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1924 play, may cause Noel Coward purists to have a heart attack or a fit of the vapors. However, as this is one of Coward’s lesser known plays, the changes made by writer/director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) are far more forgivable than they would be to one of Coward’s classics, such as Private Lives, Design for Living, or Blithe Spirit. The film is not pure Coward by any means, but in the end is an enjoyable piece of fluff.
Easy Virtue opens to a charming art-deco inspired montage with Jessica Biel singing Coward’s song, “Mad About the Boy”. It shows the whirlwind romance in the French Riviera between glamorous American race car driver/divorcee Larita (Jessica Biel) anda dashing young Englishman from the landed gentry, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes). They “meet cute” on the French Riviera and fall in love. We then flash to John’s family and their shock on hearing of his impetuous marriage to this “scandalous” woman. The story then revolves around their two worlds colliding and the question of whether or not Larita and John’s fledgling relationship can withstand her new husband’s disapproving family. The family matriarch, Mrs. Whittaker, brilliantly played by Kristin Scott Thomas, is the quintessential ‘monster in law’. She is hell bent on breaking up the marriage from the moment she claps eyes on Larita and cleverly does her best to undermine her. It is to Scott Thomas\’ credit and considerable talents that her character never becomes a one dimensional antagonist. At times, we even feel sorry for her predicament, despite it being one of her own making.
Colin Firth brings his usual charm to the part of Scott\’s long suffering (and complex) husband. The expansion of his character’s back story is one of the better additions in the film that was not in Coward’s play. Other standout performances include Kimberly Nixon, playing John’s younger sister, Hilda, and Christian Brassington as their neighbor, Phillip. But possibly my favorite performance in the entire film is by Kris Marshall (Love, Actually), as the Whittaker’s sardonic butler, who is absolutely hilarious and literally steals every scene in which he appears.
One of the wonderful things in this film is Jessica Biel’s performance as Larita. She is not only funny but she perfectly manages to convey the strength of Larita, while showing her vulnerable, likeable side as well. She does this all while looking smashing in some gorgeous 1920’s costumes, including a stunning white gown in the final scene of the movie.
Some of the updates to Coward’s story, such as making Larita a successful career woman rather than just an older, notorious divorce are great additions. But others betray more the slapstick humor of the film’s Australian director and writer, rather than the bitingly satirical and subtlety critical world that is typical of Noel Coward. Not that the unusual can-can, creative interpretation of taking part in a fox hunt and the unfortunate fate of a certain Chihuahua aren’t funny. They just are not improvements on the crisp dialogue and humorous repartee that Coward is famous for. Understandably, filmmakers cannot make straight translations of Coward’s plays to film, as dramatic dialogue between characters would seem static and stagy on film. But in the case of “Easy Virtue”, a better balance could have been struck.
Mention must be made of the music in the film, as it adds greatly to the charm and fun. The entire soundtrack is played by what is referred to as the “Easy Virtue Orchestra” who play in a 1920’s style everything from “You Do Something to Me” to “Car Wash”. (Yes, that “car wash”!!! Don’t ask, it somehow works.) The lack of a lot of Coward dialogue is made up in part with the addition of several of his songs (“A Room with a View”, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, “I’ll See You Again”) which have been worked seamlessly into the plot of the film. In fact, Coward’s “Mad About the Boy” has probably never been used to better dramatic purpose.
In the end, Easy Virtue is a thoroughly enjoyable film that while not true to the letter to Coward, is a fun and enjoyable romp.