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Left to right, Kimberley Nixon (Hilda), Kristin Scott Thomas (the scheming Mrs. Whittaker) and Katherine Parkinson (Marion) in Easy Virtue.

2 out of 4 stars


Easy Virtue

  • Directed by Stephan Elliott
  • Written by Stephan Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins
  • Starring Jessica Biel, Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas
  • Classification: PG

English producers are understandably hungry to repeat the Notting Hill formula (hot American star, inexpensive British supporting cast) for major box-office returns, and as a story, Noel Coward's Easy Virtue would seem to fit the bill. Written in the early 1920s, it provides a juicy casting opportunity: The play's about a sexy, brassy American woman with a checkered past who upsets a stuffy, upper-crust English family by marrying the son and heir.

Much less understandable is director Stephan Elliott's decision to cast Jessica Biel in the lead role as the adventurous and sophisticated Larita. The one-time teen television star ( 7th Heaven ), celebrity girlfriend and magazine hottie has played in a hodgepodge of mediocre movies ( The Texas Chainsaw Massacre , Stealth , I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry ), but remains more admired for her well-toned glutes than her well-honed acting.

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Shot in country fields and interiors of fading Georgian glory, Easy Virtue has enough traces of Coward's wit to keep you hoping for the first hour or so, but then the film collapses under the weight of too many misguided innovations.

The original Larita was a bohemian, bookish and artistic, who grows bored with the Whitakers' passion for outdoor sports. Biel has a fresh complexion and a fit body, so in a crudely literal attempt to suggest Larita has been around the track a few times, her character has been rewritten as a professional race-car driver. Trying to suggest worldliness, she manages only to project prickly haughtiness, and you can practically hear her struggling to shift gears when delivering Coward's bons mots .

How much she's out of her element is clear from the other cast members, led by Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth as her new in-laws. They are both at ease with this drawing-room blend of verbal zingers and affected world-weariness, and they make the sprightly stage talk sound almost like real conversation. In an otherwise serviceable cast, there are good performances by Kris Jordan as the sardonic, occasionally tipsy butler, and Charlotte Riley as the sympathetic young woman John was expected to marry.

The plot revolves around the power-play between Scott Thomas's manipulative Veronica and the independent minded Larita. Veronica stuffs plants into the newlyweds' room to aggravate Larita's pollen allergies. In retaliation, Larita orders a purportedly shocking Cubist nude of herself and conspires with the downstairs help to cook something edible. Other scenes feel more Farrelly brothers than Noel Coward, including one in which the family pet is sat on, and another of a younger Whitaker sister performing a public cancan without her underwear.

Wandering through the no-man's land between Veronica and Larita is Mr. Whittaker, a war veteran who pointedly mentions to Larita he's a member of the "lost generation." The dishevelled father spends his days looking wistful, tinkering with his motorcycle while rolling his eyes at his wife's machinations. Apparently, ever since the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice , it is not permissible to cast Firth in an English costume drama without him playing the brooding romantic lead.

Too often, director Elliott's attempts at livening up the script serve only as irritants. John (a blandly pretty Ben Barnes) tends to break into bits of Cole Porter or Noel Coward songs before speaking. The overbearing soundtrack even introduces jazz-age arrangements of such contemporary tunes as Car Wash and Sex Bomb . Instead of making Easy Virtue seem modern and zany, these immediately seemed dated and creaky. Taking inspiration from Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge seems far more passé than anything from Noel Coward.

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