Directed by Noel Coward’s
I happened to see the film version of Noel Coward’s early play “Easy Virtue” on the same day that I saw Harold Ramis’s “Year One,” – a mistake I don’t intend to repeat -- where a woman down the aisle from me laughed uproriously at every penis joke, and grew hysterical when they morphed into foreskin jokes. I didn’t find them obnoxious but I did find them unfunny, along with everything else in the film. But let me leave that for another review.
What is delicious about “Easy Virtue” is, and there’s no other word for it, its civilization. We learn more about each of the characters in it than the total of characters in “Year One,” even if you were to Wikipedia the whole film. A moribund country house in the 1920s with a harridan mother (Kristen Scott Thomas), her two unmarried daughters, a Chihuahua who has the run of the house, and a husband, Whittaker (Colin Firth) who would rather be anywhere else than in that house, welcomes the son home with his bride, the American Larita (Jessica Biel), who has just won the Monte Carlo grand prix in her BMW.
Yes, she turns out to have a secret, which is sprung on us toward the end of the film, but before that moment we see the workings of a totally unwelcoming household; the mother keeps putting fresh flowers in Jessica Biel’s room, knowing that she has hayfever. The meals are living death to anyone who understands cooking; at Thanksgiving Larita prepares a turkey as a treat; no one eats it. She expected to stay only long enough to make a convenient visit, but as the days stretch out she sees that her husband Ben Barnes (John) is more attracted to the house than he is to her. She has brought a present – a cubist painting – that simply shocks the whole family (she posed for it) and is quickly gotten rid of. But Larita finds allies in Whittaker and the marvelous butler Jackson (Jim McManus), and together they find a way to ease their way out.
The film is full of lovely in-jokes, including one pan of statuary outside the building, where one Greek maiden is holding one arm up while the other is playing with her crotch. The cinematographer, Martin Kenzie, has found an unobtrusive yet important use of mirrors throughout; it never gets in the way but instead adds to the feel of the film. In addition, the use of contemporary music (most by Coward himself) is essential to maintaining the feel of the 1920s. All in all, an excellent film.