Easy Virtue is a biting British comedy from start to finish. It is sharp-witted, sassy, unpredictable, humorous and tinged with bitterness, sadness and regret. Everything one might expect from the British.
“It’s a dark melodrama,” explained director/ co-writer (with Sheridan Jobbins) Stephan Elliott [Priscilla, Queen of the Desert] by phone from London. “[The play] was so vicious and cruel to English. [It was] the second play for [Noel] Coward and in his biographies we found some misgivings he had and within that found license to go with it.”
It is the late 1920s and John Whittaker [Ben Barnes] surprises his family by marrying a glamorous, platinum blonde American motorcar racer from Detroit named Larita [Jessica Biel]. This is much to the horror of his proper British family. While it appears that everything is perfect at the country estate, it really isn’t. The mother, Mrs. Whittaker [Kristin Scott Thomas] is uptight and overbearing and the father [Colin Firth] spends the majority of his time “fixing” a motorcycle that may never work. John most likely married the free-spirited Larita [Biel] on a lark and in an act of rebellion. She’s independent, easy- going, athletic, charming, and smart. The complete opposite of his mother. Suddenly it is the elder Mrs. Whittaker vs. the new Mrs. Whittaker.
“It’s a culture clash and collision of women of different eras,” said Elliott. “Great Depression. Veronica Lake. Screwball element. Likeable yet screwball.”
Larita is a city girl. John is a country boy. The sooner the two realize this, the better. Mrs. Whittaker says: “Have you had as many lovers as they say?” Larita: “No. Hardly any of them loved me.”
Firth is scruffy, downtrodden and sad. It’s not the typical role for him. He’s not the usual brooding guy. “Colin is laconic,” Elliot explains. “His character is a dead-man walking. “He’s stopped fixing a long time ago. He’s really the arc of film. Larita brings him back to life.”
Biel steps out of the pretty girl role to play a woman with greater depth and character. She’s truly impressive and memorable in this femme fatale role. If you liked her in The Illusionist, you will like her even more in Easy Virtue. “Jessica was the big surprise, the big revelation,” Elliot agreed. “Something fresh and different. We didn’t expect it.”
And after seeing Kristin Scott Thomas so serious, and heartbreakingly poignant in I’ve Loved You So Long, she must have relished her role as an eccentric, overprotective mother-in-law. [“We were chasing Kristin and Colin for years. We wouldn’t deliver something they had done.]
I don’t want to give too much away but it’s a divine war of words and gestures. “This is a very subversive, naughty piece of work,” Elliot concluded. “You have expectations and you go into the film and have those expectations are crushed majorly and you can go on that ride.”
Easy Virtue does not disappoint.