As I write this, a Broadway revival of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” starring Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett, is playing to packed houses and positive reviews. This coincides with another one of Coward’s plays, “Easy Virtue,” being re-introduced to audiences in the form of a film adaptation starring Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jessica Biel. A renewed interest in Coward’s work is long overdue, and this effortlessly droll movie should, by all rights, win him a legion of new fans.
The play was written in 1924 and made into a silent film (by Alfred Hitchcock!) in 1928; this mostly faithful new adaptation is set in 1930, on the sprawling Whittaker estate in the English countryside. The Whittakers are the type of family with money but no discernible source of income, and plenty of leisure time but nothing to fill it with. They are also, like so many clans in delicious stories like this, utterly dysfunctional. The patriarch, Jim (Colin Firth), did a bit of “wandering” in France after the Great War and doesn’t seem to have wanted to come back. (“We try not to speak of it,” his son says. “Except in public.”) His wife, Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas), is haughty and class-conscious. Of their two daughters, Marion (Katherine Parkinson) is waiting for a long-gone fiance who probably is not going to return, and Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) is dimwitted and morbid, fascinated by things like Harry Houdini’s death and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
The Whittakers’ son, Johnny (Ben Barnes), has been traveling — no one really wants to stay here, do they? — but has now returned with a bombshell: He got married. Her name is Larita (Jessica Biel), she’s American, and she’s the world’s first professional female auto racer. She and Johnny met at the Monte Carlo Gran Prix. Larita’s new mother-in-law is aghast for all the obvious reasons, along with a few more. For one, she wanted Johnny to marry Sarah Hurst (Charlotte Riley), the daughter of a wealthy landowner whose estate abuts the Whittakers’. For another, Veronica is insecure about the fact that Larita, this uncouth Yankee, has traveled extensively and learned French, while Veronica, the supposedly upper-crust matron, has done neither. For all her high-society posturing, Veronica is actually rather provincial.
That’s part of the comedy of Coward’s play, which he termed a “melodrama” but which comes across much funnier here. Another comic element is in Larita’s refusal to be cowed by Veronica or the Whittaker sisters, who turn on her after an initial period of tentative friendliness. Larita tries to put up with their rudeness at first, then stops trying, which is when things really get good. She finds a kindred spirit in Jim, her new father-in-law, as both find life on the estate stifling and long to roam.
The adaptation was written by Stephan Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins and directed by Elliott, an Australian who’s best known for his 1994 camp hit “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” His cheeky sense of humor is evident in the way he approaches “Easy Virtue,” and in what may have been his master stroke: hiring Marius de Vries to do the music. Just as he did for “Moulin Rouge!,” de Vries incorporates several modern songs into the soundtrack (including “Car Wash” and “Sex Bomb”), throws in some songs by Cole Porter and Noel Coward, and has everything performed by a 1930s-style skiffle band, heavy on the ukulele, banjo, and kazoo. The delightfulness of this music, and its influence on the film’s overall sense of merriment, cannot be overstated.
True to Coward’s intentions, things do take a slightly more somber turn as the story progresses. Biel, outpaced by the rest of the cast but fine when things stay light, lacks the depth to deal with the story’s weightier demands. She comes roaring back to life, however, when the film heads for its happy ending. As for everyone else, well, if Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas firing snarky bon mots at people for 90 minutes doesn’t sound entertaining, I don’t know what to tell you.
B+ (1 hr., 36 min.; )