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All film buff allegiance to Alfred Hitchcock aside but on an enjoyment scale, the idea of watching a silent version of a Noel Coward play is roughly on par with being presented a single crayon to use for an extraordinarily detailed coloring book. Of course, if the stimuli is interesting enough, you’ll make due with what you have and thus, since in the ‘20s sound wasn’t readily available when Hitch filmed Coward’s 1924 play Easy Virtue four years later in ’28 during his London years, he did so silently.
However, I'm sure that those who've read the playwright's work or seen it before will no doubt agree that Coward was a man worth waiting for the new technology to fully appreciate his daring plays which were filled rich witticisms and his penchant for ridiculing social conventions like marriage and child rearing which were filtered-- as in the case of Virtue-- via the culture clash of an American feminist who finds herself in the stuffy England countryside.
And indeed this exceptionally well-made adaptation co-written and directed by Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Eye of the Beholder Australian filmmaker Stephan Elliott is just the right proof one will need to come to that same conclusion. Likely to entertain not just Coward devotees and also those who’ve enjoyed studying all things relating to the Master of Suspense, Elliott's Easy Virtue is doubly fascinating in the latter respect when you consider Hitch's affinity for Coward's work. To explain, by viewing Virtue, it helps retroactively foreshadow the type of unconventional humor that Hitchcock would seek out throughout his eventual career post his own '28 Virtue in films such as The Lady Vanishes, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Trouble With Harry and others.
In Jessica Biel's best role and performance since the one that first bewitched many film lovers in The Illusionist, she plays a character we are quick to ascertain is slightly older than Ms. Biel in reality and one whom additionally is much wiser than her years. A widowed feminist race car driver from Detroit who's fresh off the high of winning the Grand Prix, Biel's Larita finds herself caught up in the excitement in Monaco when she waves to a thunderously applauding crowd and her eyes stop on the attentive eyes of the young handsome John (Ben Barnes) whom we gather is more than a little smitten with Larita by the time she appeared before her fans.
Using the old love-at-first-sight romantic comedy staple of marrying first and discovering each other's backgrounds later, Larita and John visit his dysfunctional family in the English countryside where even before they arrive and as opposed to John's initial adoration, his mother Mrs. Whitaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) is predisposed to loathe the feisty, uncouth American on sight.
Scott Thomas perfectly embodies an icy wicked witch complete with a "yippy" dog too in the form of a Chihuahua named Poppy whose picture takes up more space in Mrs. Whitaker's home than the portraits of her equally offbeat daughters, Marion (Katherine Parkinson) and Hilda (Kimberley Nixon). Larita-- the new Mrs. Whitaker-- and Scott Thomas' firm main Mrs. Whitaker clash almost right from the start as despite her kind attempts to fit in with her new in-laws, Larita fails at every turn whether mildly due to an uncontrollable allergy to the woman's flowers or majorly by an unfortunate and macabre accident with the dog.
Although John initially tries to stay on his new wife's side, we quickly realize he's still unable to clip the apron strings that bind him to his mother especially when she uses guilt, familial obligation, an old neighbor sweetheart he'd been expected to marry, and financial woes to keep him in line, deftly playing these cards at precisely the right times. As John is too weak, his long-suffering, unhappily married father Jim is too strong for Mrs. Whitaker and Kristen Scott Thomas and Colin Firth fall into an easy banter like the parents in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, no doubt also aided by the fact they'd worked together previously playing a married couple in The English Patient which helped launch both of their careers internationally.
And throughout the obvious culture clash that intriguingly presents the English countryside as even more gossip hungry and cliquish than London since in contrast to the acres of land, the people make it seem as claustrophobic as a rowdy boarding house, Larita finds an important ally via the elder Jim Whitaker. Therefore, soon the two bond over Firth's passion for an old motorcycle he's restoring which reminds Larita of life back in Motor City as well as their pasts that are filled with battle scars when we learn more about Larita's former husband and Jim's survivor guilt as the only man his age still alive in the community after the first World War.
Intelligent and inventive yet still identifiable with modern audiences since Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins ensured their script went beyond Meet the Parents like gags to play up issues to which we can relate today concerning the pasts of Larita and Jim while still not venturing so far from Coward's original source material in the period film that it calls too much attention to itself a la the awkward reinterpretation of Oliver Parker's 2002 Oscar Wilde adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Nonetheless the decision to incorporate modern songs like "Car Wash" and "Sex Bomb" and orchestrate them in the style of Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin struck me as peculiar initially. And although I do feel it's still something of a flaw overall, the saving grace of Elliott's decision was to make sure the music never overpowered the scene by making the film's action our focal point and handling the selections carefully to make sure the period music was far more prominent and echoed in dialogue along with song and dance moments throughout that just felt right.
Moreover, as opposed to staging Moulin Rouge-esque production numbers (aside from the funniest and most unfortunate display of American sarcasm and joke delivery just not translating overseas in a Can-Can crisis), I was stunned to learn after the film ended that Barnes and Biel had actually performed some of the songs on the soundtrack.
Traditionally, this would've been a major marketing push in a Hollywood production to sell the soundtracks or by placing showstopping sequences in the film yet Elliott underplays the musical accompaniment and the most breathtaking scene of the film isn't even sung as Firth and Biel dance a tango at the end of the picture that replaces Coward's banter with action in telling the story yet still in a way that couldn't have had the same impact in the silent production.
While I'm unsure how the film played overseas, sadly Easy Virtue was a blink-and-you-missed-it release here in the states as it was overpowered by testosterone popcorn movies. However, thankfully given Sony Pictures Classics' beautiful transfer to DVD and Blu-ray, I'm hopeful the work will move beyond appealing to the Coward and Hitchcock crowd and garner more interest on disc. Additionally in the same turn, it's sure to remind admirers of Biel who suffered through Powder Blue along with those who've been unimpressed with her choices since The Illusionist just how much she's capable of as an actress who can walk the dramedy fine line and go toe-to-toe with Firth and quip-to-quip with Scott Thomas.
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