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Easy Virtue

As I am unfamiliar with Noël Coward's 1924 play of the same name, I can't say what, exactly, Stephan Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins have brought to their new screenplay, but a look at the synopsis of the original play, at Wikipedia, confirms my hunch that the characters who ride off together at the end are the two who have undergone the greatest transformation in this screen adaptation. They are: one of the leading ladies, Larita (Jessica Biel);, and one of the leading men, Mr Whittaker (Colin Firth). They leave the other pair of leads, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) and his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to run the family farm.

The original play appears to lack a strong male lead. John Whittaker is still very much a boy, in over his head with his glamorous wife. And while John's parents bicker in the play, they do so within the confines of a respectable marriage that confines both characters to supporting-role status. By transforming the play's Colonel Whittaker — a Nigel Bruce softie, from the look of it — into the damaged Captain Whittaker, so traumatized by his experiences in the Great War's trenches that he has effectively withdrawn from constructive life (although he does tinker as a blacksmith), and by promoting Mrs Whittaker as a heroic estate manager, desperately waiting for her son to return from sowing wild oats in France and restore the property's fortunes, the adapters have darkened Coward's drawing-room comedy nicely, knowing just when to stop. Or at least so I thought after a first viewing. They have also created a familiar part for Mr Firth and a great one for Ms Scott Thomas. Transformed into a dramatic quartet, Easy Virtue has a heft that the twenty-five year-old Coward could not have thought of giving his play, while incorporating a host of issues and sidelights that any competent writer for the West End of the Twenties would have considered distracting, tedious, or both.

In making Larita an American with a Past, however, the filmmakers have gambled on the ability of a bankable American ingénue to incarnate the lamé glamour of a platinum blonde while simultaneously waging a battle of wits with a grand dragon, played by an actress for whom the part has obviously been tailored to fit as well as Larita's evening gowns. Not only that: Larita is a race-car driver, which adds little to her dramatic coherence but gives her mother-in-law even more to object to. Ms Scott Thomas's career has developed an interesting bifurcation: her provocative, unexpected work is done for the most part in the French cinema, while at home she plays characters like Mrs Whittaker. (In the United States, her specialty is bluebloods in a predicament.) Mrs Whittaker is the sort of role that you suppose Ms Scott Thomas must be able to play in her sleep, so richly does her every gesture ring the changes of the lady's disapproval. And although a closer look will show that the actress is not coasting by any means, her part suits her down to the ground. This cannot be said of Ms Biel's Larita — if it could, it would be a miracle. The constituent aspects of the role that I've mentioned above — slinky glamour and quick, inventive wit — are not often found together in the wild, and a Hollywood actress born in 1982 is obviously going to find one of them far more accessible than the other. As a sportswoman  who would rather sit indoors reading Proust than play tennis in the sun, Larita presents Ms Biel with an almost insurmountable challenge. I say "almost," because this is the sort of performance that one learns, after repeated viewings, either to love or to hate. We shall see which it is. In the mean time, we can sit back and relax in Ms Scott Thomas's by now deeply reassuring hisses and glares, and give thanks that we do not have to shoulder the upkeep of Flintham Hall, Notts, the early Victorian monstrosity (shown here in 1881) that stands in for the Whittaker estate.

As for the beautiful boy at the center of the action, I must say that Ben Barnes is perfect. If John is a bit of unfinished business, the actor impersonating him has to be all the more accomplished, just to convince us that it is the character, and not the actor, who needs to grow up. Mr Barnes delivers the most fatuous lines without sounding the least bit fatuous himself. I mean it a sincere compliment when I say that his performance is as clear as a cool brook. There is nothing to say about it, except that it is perfectly refreshing.

One wonders what Coward would have thought of the can-can interpolation. Mrs Whittaker has drafted Larita to join her younger daughter, Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) in a performance of the "dying swan" for the War Widows' benefit. When the girls announce their idea that it would be more fun to dance the can-can instead, Larita jokes about giving the number an authentic touch by leaving her knickers in the dressing room, and Hilda, poor sod, takes the joke in earnest. The discreetly visible scandal is terribly funny for a moment, and then it becomes terribly mortifying. Hilda's petulant sobbing afterward makes us wish that we'd been spared.

As John's other sister, Marion, Katherine Parkinson seems to have wandered onto the set from another picture, one scripted by a British Tennessee Williams, if you can imagine such a prodigy. This is not as objectionable as it sounds, as every English country house worth its drafty chimneys boasts an eccentric or two, and Marion, who insists that her fiancé, Edgar, will return one fine day, is well on her way to dottitude. Creatures like Marion make us all the more appreciative of nimble, sardonic butlers like Furber (Kris Marshall), while justifying their incipient dipsomania. One thing that Coward would not have tolerated for an instant is the running gag involving bell-ropes, but Mr Marshall and Ms Scott Thomas know how to make it work.

The household over which Mrs Whittaker presides, however, has a second eccentric, and that is her husband. But Captain Whittaker does not really belong in his own home. At the end, as anyone will have foreseen from Mr Firth's first unshaven appearance, he rides off into the night with Larita. The gentle humor and genial tolerance that would have looked comfy on Nigel Bruce take on a very sharp edge in Mr Firth's delivery, transforming what might have been gentle rebuffs to a small-minded spouse into openly hostile jabs. The role appears to belong the line of Mr Firth's successful impersonations of privately pained gentlemen, but there is in fact nothing private about Mr Whittaker's disaffection — he almost smells bad — and there are too many shots of the actor's soulful eyes. The next time that Colin Firth does this sort of thing, he will be parodying himself.

Even its faults, however, contribute to the interest of Easy Virtue. I know that I will always love parts of it (Mrs Whittaker in her vast conservatory; Mrs Whittaker showing off the rooms that she has "refreshed" for her son and his bride; Kristen Scott Thomas showing us Mrs Whittaker at the end of her rope). Whether I'll come to love all of it, or even most of it, won't begin to be clear until a few months from now, when the DVD comes out. I expect that it will become one of my familiars, often played in the kitchen to lighten the drudgery of modern cuisine (movies in this category are disproportionately period British comedies). I suggest that everyone see it at least once. As for the rest, we'll just have to wait and see. (May 2009)

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