A fine cast makes sure Noel Coward’s champagne remains bubbly in “Easy Virtue,” an effervescent entertainment that marks a welcome return for “Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” director Stephan Elliott after a nine-year absence. This peppy Ealing Studios offering may have trouble asserting itself in a market that increasingly demands must-see credentials, but with Jessica Biel more than keeping up with such British stalwarts as Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth at snapping out the tasty dialogue, the pic could yet cultivate an audience among those who go for pictures with a smart English pedigree.
For several years it has been clear that Biel is one of the great, beautiful babes of her generation. But if her abilities as a spirited, sharp-witted comedienne with a smart sense of timing had not frequently been demonstrated, it’s only because she had seldom been asked to display them. As an adventurous American auto racer confronted with ferocious disapproval from her new English husband’s snobbish family in the mid-1920s, Biel sparkles in this fun second film version of Coward’s play, after Alfred Hitchcock’s melodramatic, and much reworked, 1927 silent version.
Coward’s stage piece, which he wrote when he was only 24, was a covert demolition job on the upper middle class of British landed gentry that held on to its Victorian-era morals and attitudes more successfully than it held on to its money after World War I. Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins’ adaptation keeps a watchful eye on this and other underlying themes, even as it goofs around with the source in ways meant to mildly modernize its feel, particularly in the musical and wardrobe departments.
Pic takes a reel or so to entirely find its bearings. Larita (Biel), having just finished first in a Monaco auto race, impulsively marries upper-class pretty-boy John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) and accompanies him to his family’s country pile. Arriving in a splendid vintage BMW roadster, the couple receive a frosty welcome from John’s snooty mother (Scott Thomas), who instantly pegs the fashionable Larita as a “floozy” and launches a systematic campaign to drive her out.
Mr. Whittaker (Firth), a scruffy layabout, takes a much more generous view of his new daughter-in-law, but his wife and their two ugly-princess daughters (Kimberley Nixon, Katharine Parkinson) outnumber him. Larita does her best to ingratiate herself, but the gloves soon come off, with the only question being whether Larita and John’s love is strong enough to withstand the onslaught.
What remains unmentioned for quite some time is the Whittakers’ increasingly desperate financial straits. Keen to maintain appearances, Mrs. Whittaker holds on to every last scrap of 19th-century class prejudice, even as she’s forced to sell some of her property to a neighbor.
The free-spirited Larita is also annoying to the matriarch as a reminder of the fun she missed out on in her own life. The young enchantress spurs regretful nostalgia for spent youth in Mr. Whittaker, too. Firth’s moving monologue about losing all the men under his command during the Great War and his self-description as a member of the “romantic lost generation” bring real dimension to his character and explain a lot about the family dynamics.
A running visual metaphor equating the enormous number of dead animals adorning the estate with the rot of the specific social setting sums up Elliott’s p.o.v., but remains in the background of the lively repartee, which may only occasionally be hilarious, but is always barbed and well spoken. Scott Thomas gets the lion’s share of the savage quips, and sneers them impeccably, even as one eventually comes to understand, if not sympathize with, her reasons for ostracizing Larita. The daughters are amusingly awful creatures, while a sensible neighbor friend, Sarah (Charlotte Riley), who’s a more proper mate for John, is portrayed in an agreeably generous light.
Elliott whisks things along at a fast but not frantic pace, and brings it all to the finish line in a fleet 96 minutes. A mild choppiness in the early stretch quickly subsides. The helmer mixes five Coward tunes, as well as three Cole Porter standards, into the busy soundtrack, along with other music new and old; the result is a bit slapdash, but effective overall. Set in slowly tattering luxury, the film boasts bright production values.