96 mins, rated PG, opening in cinemas 12 March 2009.
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
One thinks of Noel Coward and one starts talking like this, doesn’t
one? One thinks of elegance, sparkling wit, clever rhymes, blithe
spirits, brief encounters, warships, and steadfast crews.
So making a film in 2008 out of Coward’s 1924 play Easy Virtue seems incongruous. In
1928 the play was produced as a silent film by – of all people – Alfred
Hitchcock. It is all the more incongruous, then, that this new film was
directed by Sydney-born Stephan Elliott, best known for the quirky
comedy-in-drag, The Adventures of
Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994), and the subsequent stage
version, Priscilla the Musical.
But it works. Stephan’s light-hearted approach, combined with inspired
casting, and a not-too-reverend attitude to this classic auteur, makes
for a perfect soufflé of a film. It’s very easy on the eye and
ear, but with a delicious and unexpected hard centre, and a little
twist in the tail.
The basic storyline is familiar. In Monte Carlo in the 1920s, the young
son of an aristocratic English family (Ben Barnes) falls for a
glamorous, American, older woman (Jessica Biel). Not only is she a
racing-car driver, she also has a past. Young John takes her home to
stay with parents Mrs and Mrs Whittaker (Colin Firth and Kristin Scott
Thomas) at the crumbling family pile. John and Larita are very much in
love, but it is apparent that Larita will not fit in, and that John’s
family is totally dysfunctional.
Elliott has great fun playing with this classic set-up, and it is clear
that the actors are enjoying themselves immensely. It is
delightful to see Scott Thomas going for broke as the cold and catty
Mrs Whittaker, after her restrained and austere performance in Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve Loved You So Long, Claudel,
2008). Colin Firth is deliciously louche as the disillusioned and
absent-from-duty master of the house. Heart-throb Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,
Adamson, 2008) is suitably handsome and fresh-faced as the young
husband – but also appropriately weak. Kris Marshall (Death at a Funeral, Oz, 2007) is
both hilarious and fresh in the stock role of the sardonic butler. But
the revelation is Jessica Biel.
Biel is best known for her appearances on television (7th Heaven) and on film The Illusionist (Burger, 2006).
None of this prepares you for her arresting performance as a thoroughly
modern woman battling against a hide-bound British dynasty. She’s not
only strikingly beautiful and stunningly dressed, she also has a finely
honed gift for comedy.
Biel’s bracing modernity gels perfectly with Elliott’s fresh approach
to this early 20th century material. All the delightful period
detail is there, but Elliott and his crew have spiced things up with
the occasional modern pop song (Sex
Bomb and When the Going Gets
Tough never sounded quite like this before!). There are also
special effects and camerawork not usually seen in period films.
Elliott had to fight for this: “We didn’t want to make a period film,”
Elliott said, “…the actors came along and immediately went into Coward
mode. And I had to ask them to talk to me as they would normally, so we
did eventually find a common voice. Also we have gone completely mad on
The tagline for Easy Virtue
is “Let’s misbehave!” I recommend it.