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Easy Virtue

Blood sport

Scott Speedman in Adoration

“Oh, you’re an American,” sighs Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) with undisguised dismay on welcoming her new daughter-in-law to the family estate in rural England.

You can’t entirely blame her. In the mid-1920s, families like the Whittakers had all they could do to keep up appearances in an economy that no longer rewarded people like them for carrying on the traditions of centuries past. And it takes more than a little money to support a house that is approximately the size of Snyder.

Far from what she had imagined as a spouse for her callow young son and heir apparent John (Ben Barnes), Larita (Jessica Biel) is American with a vengeance. She has a past. She races cars, and wins. She’s older than her new husband, not enough to claim cougar status but clearly enjoying the same benefits. And the last thing she expects to do is move into chez Whittaker, an aspect of their proposed life together that John had neglected to mention.

Easy Virtue is based on a play by Noel Coward, written in the first flush of the playwright-cum-bon-vivant’s early rush of success, when he was 25. You may have seen it at Niagara-on-the-Lake when it was revived in 2000, though if you did you may not recognize much of Coward’s original in this film version. (You’d recognize even less in the silent version Alfred Hitchcock made in 1928.)

While hewing to Coward’s basic plot, the movie has been substantially re-imagined by director Stephan Elliott. If you’re like me, you may mistake him for Stephen Daldry, who directed Billy Elliot. He is rather the Australian who had a hit in 1994 with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, followed by a pair of ill-considered movies and a few years recuperating from a near-fatal skiing accident.

Aided by the fact that this isn’t one of Coward’s better-known works, Elliott and co-scripter Sheridan Jobbins sought to turn the material into something that might please modern fans of the playwright, along with plot amplifications that play to our more lurid appetites. This is an awfully slippery slope to set down, like those lab technicians who devised computer-colorization of movies in the 1980s and defended themselves by claiming that the original filmmakers would have made color films if they’d had the choice.

Still, if Easy Virtue isn’t entirely Cowardly it does a reasonably good job of imitating his dryly witty dialogue. As the paterfamilias, played by a seedy-looking Colin Firth, says when asked about his hushed-up experiences after the War, “We try not to speak about it. Except in public.” Unable to vent their differences publicly, characters maintain a battle of passive-aggressive sniping, barbs cushioned by polite company in which you can pretend that you’re kidding.

It’s entertaining as far as it goes, with Larita’s freewheeling Americanness colliding at every juncture with the repressed attitudes of her mother- and sisters-in-law. But eventually all this comedy comes up against Coward’s original theme, which probably wasn’t terribly novel even when he wrote the play: that the British gentry’s moral superiority is an unearned pose, the “easy virtue” of the title. It’s when the story takes this up in earnest that the movie becomes a display of shooting fish in a barrel.

Watch the trailer for Easy Virtue

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