Easy Virtue

October 29, 2008

Winter just wouldn’t be the same without at least one period drama set in a vast country pile in the inter-war years (see Gosford Park, Atonement, and also this year Brideshead Revisited revisited).

The usual portrait of the crumbling upper class, featuring lashings of guilt and tragedy, has been nudged aside with a knowing wink and saucy pout courtesy of the Noel Coward play Easy Virtue. Stephan Elliott (Priscilla Queen of the Desert) adds an extra helping of naughtiness as co-screenwriter and director.

The owner of the Easy Virtue in question, blonde American bombshell Larita Whittaker (perfectly pitched by Jessica Biel), is a thoroughly modern racing driver who finds herself married into the Whittaker family toxic soup in the run up to Christmas.

No amount of gorgeous wide legged trousers, fur, bias cut silk or red lippy can detract from Mrs Whittaker Snr’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) horror at her son marrying a coarse American who smokes. And so the battle commences.

Colin Firth does his thing as the distracted head of the household, presiding over two wicked sisters (Kimberley Nixon as Hilda is one to watch) and Larita’s beau and heir to the disappearing fortune – John (a forgettable non-performance from Ben Barnes.) 

This film is not as funny as it thinks it is, yet at times mistakenly goes after comedy at the expense of believability. The first two thirds of the film are a hail of unfunny one-liners and over-familiar and informal interaction between the Whittaker family members and their servants. Hang in there and you are rewarded with a few genuine laughs in the final third, but be prepared to put up with some heavy handed clangers and shoddy slapstick first.

The decision to soundtrack the film with Thirties swing renditions of pop hits (such as Carwash, a grating When The Going Gets Tough The Tough Get Going and a unutterably hideous Sexbomb) only further reinforces the misjudged tone.

Finishing with a flourish before the drama of war can cloud the jollities and with only a passing nod to the Depression, Easy Virtue, despite its shortcomings, is the perfect tonic of style and glamour for a chilly, pre-recession era evening. And nothing could be as bad as the drawn out tedium of Brideshead Revisited revisited.

Easy Virtue is on nationwide release from 7 November.

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