With a canon of classic plays like 'Private Lives,' 'Design for Living,' and 'Blithe Spirit,' Noël Coward earned his reputation as the undisputed master of sophisticated wit. Acerbic remarks, usually delivered with an arched eyebrow or withering glare, became his trademark, along with a progressive attitude toward intimate relationships and blatant disdain for the rigid sensibilities of stuffy British society. Though he dabbled in other genres, Coward is best known for his hilariously insightful drawing room comedies, and the trailer for 'Easy Virtue,' an adaptation of one of his lesser known works from the 1920s, highlights the story's screwball elements. The trouble is, 'Easy Virtue' is really a drama, and by injecting madcap antics where they don't belong and cramming the story into an unsuitable mold, director Stephan Elliott ('The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert') ends up serving his audience a muddled, misshapen dish.
'Easy Virtue' isn't a particularly bad film. It has style, some droll humor, and good performances. But if an Italian restaurant hypes its lasagna and doles out Indian food instead, it's tough not to feel cheated, and that's the taste this rather dreary movie left in my mouth. The preview promises a lively, naughty, light-hearted romantic farce and instead delivers a mildly amusing, slow-moving diatribe against hypocrisy that possesses little joie de vivre. Surprisingly, there's not much plot; situations abound, and there's plenty of rapid-fire dialogue, but it takes far too long to get from Point A to Point B. That's okay on stage, but successful film adaptations require more narrative drive, and though Elliott (who co-wrote the uneven script with Sheridan Jobbins) tries his best to expand and update the story, he tinkers too heavily with the original play's structure and tone, infusing it with wacky, contrived inventions that never quite work. The result is a forced, talky dramedy of manners that possesses little of Coward's patented zing.
Detroit-bred Larita (Jessica Biel), a glamorous, down-to-earth free spirit who gained notoriety as a prize-winning racecar driver, impulsively elopes with the hopelessly smitten John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), who hails from a wealthy British family. A soft, jaunty blueblood, John is literally to-the-manor-born, and when he presents his bride to his loving brood at their sprawling country estate, the reception is chilly at best. John's domineering mother, Victoria (Kristin Scott Thomas), labels Larita a gold-digging "floozie," abhors her crass American ways, and denounces their union. Though his jaded father (Colin Firth), a former World War I colonel, is more welcoming, he wields little influence, preferring instead to consume a steady diet of alcohol and fling cynical barbs at the idle rich.
Larita, however, is no shrinking violet, and blows into this beehive like a hurricane, enlivening the family's dull, ordered existence while mercilessly pushing Victoria's buttons. The matriarch responds in kind, and the stifling atmosphere thickens when questions about Larita's checkered past crop up. As John's mother connives to drive a wedge between the young lovers, Larita digs in her heels and puts up a fight, but with her husband caught in the middle, it's unclear which of the iron-willed Whittaker women will emerge victorious.
'Easy Virtue' (which was first filmed as a silent back in 1927 by a young director named Alfred Hitchcock) starts well enough, but quickly stalls, and doesn't reignite until the final act. The comedic scenes strain to produce the hoped-for laughs, and it's not until the story abandons all frivolity and gets down to brass tacks that it fully engages. By then, however, it's far too late, and the jarring switch from comedy to melodrama further sabotages the film. (Even Elliott's valiant attempts to perk up the sedate pacing with bits of flashy technique seem out of place for a movie of this sort.) Biel looks fine in her flapper attire, but the fledgling actress can't shake her Gen-X attitude, and though Barnes might have sent teenage hearts aflutter as Prince Caspian in the last 'Narnia' epic, he doesn't catch fire here. Thomas' unbridled bitchiness and Firth's blasé ruminations almost save the day, but the script reins these talented actors in just as they seem ready to cut loose.
Few plays from the 1920s strike a chord today, and 'Easy Virtue' isn't one of them. A straight interpretation might have made an interesting period piece, but by transforming Coward's play into something it's not, Elliott does the author – and his audience – a disservice. Perhaps the wisest choice of all would have been to leave this dated property on the shelf, where it probably belongs.
With its lush manor setting, flashy costumes, and old world glamour, 'Easy Virtue' is a Blu-ray natural, and the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer showcases the film's fine production values. A natural feel punctuated by light grain lends the image warmth and accessibility, and the spotless source material keeps attention anchored on the story. Clarity is excellent; high detail levels allow us to soak up all the period trimmings, and nicely balanced contrast benefits both interior and exterior scenes. Though there's not a whole lot of stunning dimensionality, the picture possesses good depth, and no banding, digital noise, or sharpening interfere with the on-screen action.
Colors are bright and vivid, but never look over-saturated, black levels are dense and deep, and fleshtones appear stable and true throughout. All in all, a solid effort from Sony Classics.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track pumps out surprisingly good audio for a dialogue-driven film. Excellent stereo separation and seamless front-channel pans distinguish the mix, which also enjoys decent bass accents, most notably when Larita drives a motorbike during a fox hunt. The period tunes, which lend the story vital nostalgic flavor, sound robust and well balanced, and a good amount of surround activity add ambience to exterior countryside scenes.
Dialogue is always properly prioritized and easy to understand, although some of the frenetic exchanges can get a bit muddled due to the thick British accents. Terrific dynamic range keeps distortion at bay and adds lovely resonance to this quality audio effort.
Sony tacks on a few extras, but nothing spectacular.
'Easy Virtue' is hard to like. This clunky adaptation of a dated Noël Coward play tries to evoke a breezy bygone era, but ends up a stuffy museum piece instead. Stephan Elliott's conflicted film honors neither its revered author nor its bewildered audience, and despite fine video and audio and a couple of enjoyable performances, never captures our fancy. With so many good independent films currently available on Blu-ray ('Sunshine Cleaning' and 'Sugar' among them), don't waste your time with this lackluster trifle.
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