Easy Virtue ***
Directed by: Stephan Elliott
Written By: Stephan Elliott & Sheridan Jobbins based on the play by Noel Coward>
Starring: Jessica Biel (Larita Whittaker), Ben Barnes (John Whittaker), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs. Whittaker), Colin Firth (Mr. Whittaker), Kimberley Nixon (Hilda Whittaker), Katherine Parkinson (Marion Whittaker), Kris Marshall (Furber), Christian Brassington (Phillip Hurst), Charlotte Riley (Sarah Hurst), Pip Torrens (Lord Hurst).
There is a cheerful artificiality to the opening scenes of Easy Virtue, that by the end of the film you are surprised that you allowed the film to sneak up on you like it does. When the film opens, we think we know exactly where everything is going to end up, but instead, it goes into a much darker place. Don’t get me wrong, the film is a comedy all the way through, but this isn’t quite the light British comedy I thought it was going to be.
John Whitaker (Ben Barnes) is the beloved only son of Veronica Whitaker (Kristen Scott Thomas), who runs a vast estate in the English countryside with her husband (Colin Firth), who gave up caring about anything after the War. She has always assumed that John would return and run the estate when he was done sewing his wild oats. But then John does something unexpected – he marries an America, Larita (Jessica Biel). Not only is she American, she is a race car driver, who has already been married (and widowed) once before, and she has absolutely no interest in living on the estate. The two women immediately dislike each other, and a war between the two of them begins – with John being the prize. If you think you know where this is going, trust me, you’re wrong.
I enjoyed the opening scenes of the movie so much, that I forgive the movie for turning dark at the end, and not quite pulling it off. In the early going, the film is a comic marvel, with all the actors getting into the swing of old time studio acting, and delivering their lines with deft comic timing. Firth is wonderful as the unshaven, uncaring patriarch. Ben Barnes has to be a stick in the mud a little, but still does a fine job. Even Jessica Biel, who I normally do not like very much, does a fine job as the outsider. But no one is better than Kristen Scott Thomas, who is perfect as the uppity bitch of a mother, who starts out cruel, and just gets worse from there. She is also the only one who is fully capable when the film takes its darker turns in the last act. By then, Biel has revealed that she is out of her depth, and I realized that Barnes and Firth have been so poorly developed that they really don’t have characters left to play. I didn’t realize this in the early going, because I was having too much fun.
Despite the problems I had with Easy Virtue, I cannot deny that it makes for a good time at the movies. The main characters are ably supported by Kimberly Nixon and Katherine Parkinson, as John’s two sisters, both of whom are delusional when it comes to the object of their desire, and by Kris Marshall, who is hilarious as Furber, the butler, who is full of interesting sideways glances at his employers, yet tries to maintain his dignity – even while putting a dead dog in a pillow into a burlap sack.
And besides, Kristen Scott Thomas is worth the price of admission alone. For years, I found her distant and aloof in most of her movies, but in the last few years, she has made quite a few movies in Frances, and working outside her native language seems to have refreshed her. Now, returning to the type of role I normally loathed her in, she delivers a pitch perfect performance. We have seen this type of character before, but normally, the cold British mother usually has a gooey center inside that comes out by the end of the movie. Here, her inside is even worse that her exterior and she simply becomes fuller of malice as the film progresses. The movie starts as a fish out of water comedy, but develops into something more. By the end of the movie, Larita seems like the only sane one in the film – and her final speech is perhaps the only logical thing that is said in the entire movie.