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.