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Bride's Head on a Platter, Revisited

Easy Virtue (2008)

Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures Classics

Noel Coward was best known for imbuing his work with incisive wit, even in plays regarded far less fondly than “Private Lives” or “Hay Fever.” It’s that spirit most closely preserved by director Stephan Elliott in his adaptation of “Easy Virtue,” which most experts consider a lesser entrant in the playwright’s oeuvre. Unfortunately, the combination of cleverly-constructed, snappy dialogue and the filmmaker’s concerted effort to fill the film with broad, audience-friendly comedy cannot compensate for the narrative thinness at its core.

Too often “Easy Virtue” feels like a rough facsimile of many better drawing-room comedies. Its central conceit – a distilled exploration of the clash between the new and old worlds that collided during the 1920s – is reduced to an ever-escalating conflict between Larita (Jessica Biel), the dapper, artsy wife of John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), and his stern traditional mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Once one recognizes that Larita and Mrs. Whitaker will not get along, all that’s left is to sit back and watch their battle grow progressively nastier and more destructive.

The actors delve right into the quick-witted spirit, with Ms. Biel giving what can definitively be said to be her first truly transformative performance. Ms. Scott Thomas is an imposing foil, projecting a twin sense of menace and vulnerability as a woman not only threatened by Larita herself, but by what her presence signifies. The expansive parlors of the Whittaker home, swinging costume parties, sun-lit lawns, jazz age soundtrack and “Moulin Rouge”-like onscreen musical performances all enliven things.

Yet the entire movie boils down to a particular, repetitive comic sensibility that emphasizes Larita’s carefree, modern spirit and Mrs. Whittaker’s prudish disregard for it. This makes the picture feels like an almost exact replica of a lesser screwball product from the studio era. The tame set pieces are much funnier conceptually than they are in their dated execution; and the manic, freewheeling pace sacrifices introspection for chaos. With themes of class warfare, the post-traumatic stress afflicting the English aristocracy in the wake of WWI, and the tumult of the generational divide that erupted during the 1920s, the material has the makings of a meaningful social study. Sadly, as presented by Mr. Elliott, “Easy Virtue” is a mediocre lark and only rarely more.


Opens on May 22 in Manhattan.

Directed by Stephan Elliott; written by Mr. Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins, based on the play by Noël Coward; director of photography, Martin Kenzie; edited by Sue Blainey; music by Marius de Vries; production designer, John Beard; produced by Barnaby Thompson, Joe Abrams and James D. Stern; released by Sony Pictures Classics. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Jessica Biel (Larita), Colin Firth (Mr. Whittaker), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs. Whittaker) and Ben Barnes (John).


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