AWFJ Women on Film – “Easy Virtue” – Susan Granger reviews

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Jessica Biel has such a contemporary sensibility that casting her in Noel Coward’s 1920s comedy-of-manners-and-morals is more than a fish-out-of-water, it’s a feminist-out-of-century.

Biel plays Larita, a brash American adventuress who impetuously marries into an aristocratic British family. When her much younger husband, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes, who played Prince Caspian in the last “Narnia” movie), brings her home to his parents’ stately country estate, his domineering mother (Kirsten Scott-Thomas) takes an instant dislike to her, while his detached father (Colin Firth), a disheveled W.W.I army officer immediately spots her courage and integrity. Caught in the middle are John and his two unmarried sisters, Marion (Katherine Parkinson) and Hilda (Kimberly Nixon).

While there’s a snippet of upstairs/downstairs comedy as Larita bonds with the cynical butler (Kris Marshall), the conflict is primarily between the imperious mother and free-spirited daughter-in-law who, as it turns out, is a widow hiding a secret scandal involving the death of her first husband. All this occurs during a weekend with a ritual fox hunt, lavish costume ball and the unfortunate, accidental death of the family’s Chihuahua.

Problem is: Australian director Stephan Elliott, best known for his drag comedy “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and who wrote the screenplay with Sheridan Jobbins, never settles on a cohesive style, veering from Coward’s sophisticated banter to forced farce to a misguided and, therefore, insipid stab at realism, skimming over the essence of repression and hypocrisy within the quaint, class-conscious melodrama.

Veteran thespians Kristin Scott-Thomas and Colin Firth seem comfortable with Coward’s wit and irony but, despite seven years of experience as a teen on TV’s “7th Heaven,” Jessica Biel seems unfamiliar with the nuances of tart dialogue delivery.

Another discordant note is Stephen Edelman’s soundtrack, filled with frothy, flippant tunes that were written in subsequent decades. So on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Easy Virtue” is a soggy, strained 6. And if you’re curious, a much earlier version of “Easy Virtue” was a vintage silent film, directed by a very young Alfred Hitchcock.

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Susan Granger

Susan Granger

Susan Granger is a product of Hollywood. Her natural father, S. Sylvan Simon, was a director and producer at R.K.O., M.G.M. and Columbia Pictures; her adoptive father, Armand Deutsch, produced movies at M.G.M. As a child, Susan appeared in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Margaret O'Brien and Lassie. She attended Mills College in California, studying journalism with Pierre Salinger, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Phi Beta Kappa, with highest honors in journalism. During her adult life, Susan has been on radio and television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic. Her newspaper reviews have been syndicated around the world, and she has appeared on American Movie Classics cable television. In addition, her celebrity interviews and articles have been published in REDBOOK, PLAYBOY, FAMILY CIRCLE, COSMOPOLITAN, WORKING WOMAN and THE NEW YORK TIMES, as well as in PARIS MATCH, ELLE, HELLO, CARIBBEAN WORLD, ISLAND LIFE, MACO DESTINATIONS, NEWS LIMITED NEWSPAPERS (Australia), UK DAILY MAIL, UK SUNDAY MIRROR, DS (France), LA REPUBBLICA (Italy), BUNTE (Germany), VIP TRAVELLER (Krisworld) and many other international publications through SSG Syndicate. Susan also lectures on the "Magic and Mythology of Hollywood" and "Don't Take It Personally: Conquering Criticism and other Survival Skills," originally published on tape by Dove Audio.