Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Anglo-American Love: Easy Virtue

Sure, opposites attract, but can they stay together? Noel Coward put that question to the test with the marriage of the very British John Whittaker and his beautiful American wife Larita. While retaining all the acerbic critiques of the British polite society, director Stephen Elliott also throws in the odd modern flourish in his adaptation of Coward’s 1924 play Easy Virtue (trailer here), which opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, following its recent American premiere at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

Widowed under mysterious circumstances, Larita is now a minor celebrity having fashioned a career as a glamorous race-car driver. Her new husband, the somewhat younger Whittaker, has never held a job in his life, nor has he ever stood up to his domineering mother. The two newlyweds could not be more dissimilar, encompassing differences of youth and experience, the landed gentry and the industrious middle class, and dare we say it, Old Europe and the New World, all of which were perfect grist for the Coward’s sly wit

Needless to say, Mrs. Whittaker, the severe family matriarch, never envisioned an American black-widow novelty-act as her daughter-in-law. Outwardly, she is scrupulously polite to Larita, but a Cold War of the classes is quickly joined between the two.

Whittaker’s meek sisters prove little more welcoming than their judgmental mother, but she does find some allies in the Whittaker manor. Of course, the servants love her and she also forms a fast friendship with Whittaker’s father. The moody Mr. Whittaker is definitely a member of the lost generation. The sole surviving member of the village regiment, he only reluctantly returned home after months spent deadening his pain with Parisian hedonism. He enjoys Larita’s plucky character and recognizes an inner sadness in her similar to his own.

Elliott shows a strong affinity for Coward’s drawing-room banter. While at times the comedic situations are bit too cute, he keeps the pace brisk and brings out surprising depth in the relationship between Larita and her new father-in-law. Colin Firth is pitch-perfect as Mr. Whittaker, mordantly droll but also genuinely poignant, providing the film’s emotional center.

Indeed, Virtue boasts an impressive cast, led by Jessica Biel. Thanks to her smart, vivacious performance as Larita, it is completely believable both the haunted father and shallow son would be attracted to her. The rigidly proper Mrs. Whittaker is the sort of ice-queen role Kristin Scott Thomas seems to have been born to play to the hilt, digging into her acidic dialogue with relish. However, Ben Barnes is a bit bland as John Whittaker, coming across as a watered down Bertie Wooster.

Virtue is an appropriately elegant production, featuring sheik costumes and an entertaining soundtrack of popular 1920’s songs with a few modern tunes re-recorded in period style by Marius de Vries mixed in for comedic effect. Though it is often wincingly pointed, Virtue has an infectious spirit that is quite appealing. Featuring fantastic work from Firth and perhaps Biel’s strongest screen performance to date, it is a thoroughly charming film. It opens this Friday in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Union Square Cinemas.