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British Cinema, Romance

Easy Virtue (UK/US 2008)

Jessica Biel and Colin Firth get their hands dirty in 'Easy Virtue'

I missed this film when it came out but I remember that the trailer made it look fun. I did enjoy it when I watched it on DVD recently and it struck me that it serves to bring together several representations of ‘Englishness’, questions about modernity and the possibilities for contemporary British films.

Premise

The instigator of the project was producer Barnaby Thompson. He’s an intriguing figure who has produced (and directed) a series of popular British films since the late 1990s without making much of an impact on either film academics or general commentators on the British film industry, yet usually making money. His record of successes is remarkable, encompassing several different but familiar British genres, one of which is the broad comedy of the St. Trinians revivals and Kevin and Perry Go Large and another the more sophisticated comedy/satire of Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, Dorian Gray). He was also responsible for Spice World. Thompson’s ‘go to’ actor/star appears to be Colin Firth and it’s interesting to note Firth’s long list of comic supporting parts in these films at a time when he looks odds-on favourite for Best Actor in this year’s Oscars.

For this project, Thompson switched from Oscar Wilde to Noel Coward. His crucial decision was to approach the Australian director Stephan Elliott (best known for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)). Elliott worked with another Australian filmmaker, Sheridan Jobbins, and between them they adapted the original Coward script. Coward wrote the play in 1924 and it was performed on Broadway in 1925 and in the West End in 1926. The first film version (a ‘silent’ Noel Coward!) was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928.

Coward’s light comedy/romance was intended as an attack on the hypocrisy of the Edwardian values held by upper middle-class women at a time of (limited) sexual liberation for younger women. Elliott claims to have moved away from Coward but the film retains much of the plot of the original play. The Whittakers are from the landed gentry with a large rambling country house falling into decline. Mr Whittaker (Colin Firth) has more or less retired from running the estate, disillusioned by his wartime experiences. The job falls to Mrs Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas), the repressed mother of two marriageable daughters, Marion (the usually sparky Katherine Parkinson playing against type) and her younger sister, Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) – both of whom are to some extent dysfunctional. The ‘inciting incident’ is the return home of John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) with his new bride, an American rally car driver, Larita (Jessica Biel). Mother is not amused.

The main change from the original is to make Larita an American. In some ways this seems to slightly shift the genre repertoire towards the long-running series of stories in which American women come to Europe looking for aristocratic husbands. Larita isn’t one of these however and it is her independence, sporting achievements and general worldliness that makes her a disruptive force.

Elliott has said (in the DVD extras) that a recognisable music score was very important in getting the tone and feel of the film right. Newspaper references to the death of Houdini (1926) and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1929) immediately confuse the period setting and the songs (all performed by the ‘Easy Virtue Orchestra’ and arranged by Marius De Vries) are mainly from the early 1930s. The opening song, ‘Mad About the Boy’ by Noel Coward dates from 1932. There are also arrangements of much more recent songs such as ‘Car Wash’ and ‘Sex Bomb’. Clearly, Elliott is not bothered by notions of historical ‘authenticity’ as such. Any expectations that this will be a straight BBC costume picture approach are dashed immediately (BBC Films did invest in the project however).

Commentary

I enjoyed the film for precisely the same reason that most broadsheet newspaper reviewers employed to put it down, i.e. the anachronistic use of music, aspects of dialogue and some performance styles. Elliott is clearly not making either a ‘straight’ adaptation or a ‘realist’ romantic drama. He’s attempting to have some fun with the format whilst still keeping Coward’s satirical edge. This involves some interesting camerawork from Martin Kenzie – a veteran usually employed as an assistant or on Second Unit work and here given his head.

There is also an interesting mix of actors in the cast. Three pairs of actors fill the main parts. Firth and Scott Thomas provide the class (and pull in the older audiences) whereas Jessica Biel and Ben Barnes (Narnia films) represent the ‘young’ (both in their late 20s) stars for younger audiences. Kimberley Nixon is another younger British actor who could be seen as performing in the same way. IMDB carries several vitriolic attacks Jessica Biel. I realised that the only time I’ve seen her before was when she was a young teenager in Ulee’s Gold (1997) and I thought she was very well cast here. Barnes was suitably dull but she had the vitality and physicality required. The third pair was the UK TV sitcom actors Kris Marshall as the butler and Katherine Parkinson as the older daughter Marion. I thought that this casting helped Elliott create tensions and disturbances in the household with difference performance styles and different ways for the audience to respond. Marshall seemed to me to steal the film in terms of his comedy performance with a beautiful series of smirks, raised eyebrows etc.

But most obvious (and perhaps most annoying for the critics) was the deliberate oppositional playing of Scott Thomas and Firth. She creates an over-emphasised caricature of nostril flaring whereas Firth appears to be in a 1970s movie with his sunglasses, stubbly beard and general sense of being laid-back. He must have had a ball. He is reported to have been worried by the requirement to dance the tango with Biel but for many in the audience this will have been the highlight of the film.

Stephan Elliott nearly killed himself in a skiing accident in 2004 and it’s good to see him back on form. Easy Virtue did reasonable business around the world (strangely being most popular in Italy and France – perhaps making fun of the English upper middle classes is still appealing). Elliott is working on a new film and Kris Marshall is in the cast.

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