“Easy Virtue”

Tony and I went to see Easy Virtue tonight in Manhasset. The film is based on a Noel Coward play of the same name.

Easy Virtue features a young rich Briton who suddenly marries Larita, an American lady race-car driver, much to the disdain of his mother (Kristin Thomas Scott) and two sisters (Kimberley Nixon and Katherine Parkinson) back home on the estate that’s been in the family for seven generations.

Larita (Jessica Biel) has a tough road ahead of her facing the Big Three. Larita is a modern liberated woman, a divorcee, and far too American for the Whittakers’ liking. She speaks her mind. She’s posed nude for cubist painters. This doesn’t sit well with her husband’s mother or frumpy, unloved virginal sisters. Set circa 1932, one has to remember that this is England, which couldn’t tolerate its own King (Edward VIII) marrying a divorced woman.

Having married impulsively on the Riviera, Larita hasn’t seen John (Ben Barnes) in his native environment, and a quick visit to get introduced to his family turns into an interminable stay, with days turning into weeks and then months. The tensions escalate, and it becomes clear that Larita has more in common with the servants and John’s father than with almost anyone else. And since John’s mother and father (Colin Firth) are estranged yet living together, any time the young couple enjoys any kind of intimacy, it drives the Mom and the gruesome virginal twosome nuts.

Director Stephan Elliot (Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) does a good job of showing the entrenched English stuffiness and class struggles–most period pieces like this do. Kristin Thomas Scott excels as the uptight aristocrat, torn by propriety converging with the financial pressures of maintaining a centuries-old farming way of life during the Depression. Jessica Biel does a pretty good job of standing up to all the pressures. The film has a lot of funny moments, and a stupendous period soundtrack punctuated by Cole Porter and Noel Coward songs. Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian of the Narnia Chronicles), as Tony pointed out, was prettier than all of them put together.

Interesting enough, the Hitchcock adaptation of the play puts much more of the drama on the Larita character being a divorcee with a very shady past. Here, Larita is set up as the victim, doomed from the moment she crossed the threshhold of the family estate. In the Hitchcock version, the Whittaker matriarch acts to “save” her son by digging up dirt on Larita.

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