Film Review: Easy Virtue (2008)

“Dancing with you is like trying to move a piano”

Last up this weekend was the 2008 film of Easy Virtue and though the saying goes last but not least, it’s not really the case here. Adapted by Stephan Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins, their version of the story is practically a rewriting so different is it from the original, but the efforts have largely been in vain as it makes for a lumpen and turgid watch with a distinct waste of the not inconsiderable talent on show. A part of this comes from my own preferences – Jessica Biel is an actress to whom I have never warmed and I love Kristin Scott Thomas far too much to see her reduced to such one-note caricatures – but a larger part comes from the fatally misguided direction which tries far too hard to make this what it is not.

The story flirts between the romantic comedy of an out-of-place American widow newly married into the English aristocracy and battling against the stuffiness of his family, and the more socially astute depiction of the trials faced by the upper classes in the interwar period. But it achieves neither particularly well. There’s nowhere near enough of Coward’s customary bon mots and razor-sharp wit to make it recognisable as anywhere close to his best work and the insistence on maintaining the faux stylings of its chirpy jazz-lite score means that nothing deep is allowed to achieve any resonance. That score may have (disposable) versions of Coward and Cole Porter classics but it also contains horrendous jazzy reinterpretations of songs like ‘Car Wash’, ‘Sex Bomb’, and ‘When The Going Gets Tough’…need I say any more.

Biel plays Larita, an impossibly glamorous US race-car driver who, on lust at first sight, marries John Whittaker, an aristocratic young Englishman played by Ben Barnes. But their homecoming is far from easy as his mother – Kristin Scott Thomas as a dour harridan – disapproves of his new ‘floozy’ as she is both widowed and penniless, his father – Colin Firth – has been left shattered by his experiences in the Great War and both his sisters are aimlessly drifting through life – Kimberley Nixon and Katherine Parkinson both doing ‘dowdy’. Larita first tries her hardest to win over this family but soon realises it is an impossible challenge and aided by some subversive servants, she wages her own war of attrition.

Thus it all becomes rather unlikeable. Without enough of the roguish humour to leaven the atrocious behaviour with a twinkling eye, Easy Virtue feels leaden and uninspired, lacking comedy or style or a real sense of its identity as it lurches between its different moods. This leadenness comes across in the performances too, most everyone feels like they are treading water here, and little attempt is made to contextualise any of the behaviour in genuine human experience – instead people just come across as entirely unreasonable – “you should have loved me more”. Noël Coward would roll his eyes.

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