Dir: Stephan Elliott. UK. 2008. 93mins
The champagne wit of Noel Coward’s eighty year old play still fizzes and sparkles in Stephan Elliott’s jaunty adaptation ofEasy Virtue. Handsome production values, a class-act cast and nimble direction from Elliott all combine to make the most of the material, transforming it into a surprisingly elegant, entertaining period piece. Positive reviews should encourage healthy support from a potential international audience defined by the likes ofMiss Pettigrew Lives For A Day,Gosford Parkand recent Oscar Wilde adaptations.
Elliott has struggled to find a rhythm to his career in the afterglow of his biggest success The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994). Easy Virtue is his most satisfying effort since that landmark production and finds him at ease with a world of cutting wordplay and class conflict. He embraces the lush theatricality of Coward’s sensibility, but without toppling into the kind of camp archness that might grate with a contemporary audience. He also employs a cast that has the comic timing and dramatic abilities to make the most of the subtleties in Coward’s writing.
You expect Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth to be completely at home in this universe, but the revelation is Jessica Biel who handles the literate dialogue with aplomb. She plays Larita, a daredevil American sensation of the European race track who follows a whirlwind romance with naive Englishman John (Ben Barnes) by marrying him and then facing the daunting prospect of meeting his parents. Frosty mother Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas) does everything she can to make her feel unwelcome and a state of war is declared. Larita discovers all the poisonous emotions that flow within the family whilst Veronica and the daughters uncover all the dirty secrets from Larita’s past that might convince John that this is not a marriage made in heaven.
Coward was the master of the well-constructed, impeccably witty play that eventually reveals some home truths about the emotional repression of the English middle-classes and the stifling repression endemic to the British class system. All of those elements are present in this adaptation. There are still lines of such wit and savagery that they easily connect with a modern audience and the message about the need to break from from the shackles of the past and embrace the possibilities of a new, uncertain future is timeless.
The ubiquitous Colin Firth has some telling moments as Veronica’s bored husband and grumpy paterfamilias Jim, Kris Marshall milks all the deadpan comedy in family retainer Thurber and Kristin Scott Thomas has just the right edge of manic malice to make Veronica a formidable opponent.
Who knows what value the Noel Coward brand has for a modern audience, but this is enjoyable and accessible enough to provide a substantial specialist hit.
Joe Abrams Productions
James D Stern
Douglas E Hanson
Cindy W Kirven
based on the play by Noel Coward
Kristin Scott Thomas