Easy Virtue, the new film from The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert director Stephan Elliott, is a comedy-of-manners loosely based on a Noël Coward play of the same name. Originally filmed as a silent movie in 1928 by Alfred Hitchcock, the new version is anything but quiet with the British members of the cast—Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas and Narnia’s Ben Barnes—expertly lobbing frothy dialogue too and fro. It’s up to the lone above-the-title American star Jessica Biel, not to get lost in the crossfire.
Biel is Larita, a brash American widow who marries John Whittaker (Barnes), a wealthy Brit after a brief romance in the south of France. When John brings home his new wife, or the “gold-digger from the land of opportunists” as she is seen by his mother (Kristen Scott Thomas), a class war erupts between the spirited Larita and stiff upper lipped Whittakers.
Easy Virtue is the latest big release from Ealing Studios. For over 100 years the British studio has been synonymous with quality comedy, particularly during their 1940s and 50s heyday when they produced classics like Passport to Pimlico, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers. Like its predecessors Easy Virtue has its virtues—it’s a quality production, elegantly directed and, for the most part, nicely acted, but a classic it’s not. I doubt it’ll ever sit on the shelf next to any of the studio’s better known titles.
It’s a hard movie to hate, but an even harder one to love. While it has its moments—the 1970s disco hit Car Wash is nicely adapted and snuck into the soundtrack as a jaunty British ragtime tune, butler Furber is played with deadpan perfection by Kris Marshall and much attention has been paid to the period sets and costumes—it’s a little too frivolous too make much of an impression.
It is worth a look to see Kristin Scott Thomas take standard mother-in-law joke of a role and bring it to vibrant, acidic life or Colin Firth bang off one-liners with the ease of drawing room comedy veteran but while I know many people who wouldn’t mind watching Jessica Biel for 90 minutes she isn’t one of the movie’s stronger elements.
In recent years Biel has worked very hard to break out of the model turned actress mold and take on increasingly challenging roles, and while Easy Virtue is a step forward toward her goal, she’s still a few feet away from the finish line. Witty lines that fall trippingly off the tongues of the Brits in the cast sound flat and clunky in Biel’s delivery and a scene with a dog, a pillow and an unfortunate accident proves that light comedy is not her forte.
Easy Virtue isn’t a terrible film, it’s just not very memorable.