Easy Virtue, 96 mins, rated PG, opening in cinemas 12 March 2009.


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 music…”

The tagline for Easy Virtue is “Let’s misbehave!” I recommend it.