Young buck John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) has married Larita (Jessica Biel) a sexy American star after a whirlwind romance. But his silver-spoon family – especially his uptight mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) – is up in arms. As Larita crashes from one faux-pas to another, can easy virtue live happily ever after in aristocratic England?
Beautifully shot, with a bouncy twenties soundtrack, Easy Virtue is easy on the eye and ear. Colin Firth plays a blinder, perhaps his best performance in years, as the father of the house, cowed by memories of the war and cool towards his wife. And Kristin Scott Thomas’ matriarch is by turns funny, fearsome and sad.
Situation comedy and verbal jousting make it passably amusing. But Coward’s piquant dialogue and crafty critique of high society is ditched in favour of broad humour. Coward himself might have approved if it hadn’t been so obvious.
A bitter undertow pulls the film toward darker waters – as Biel questions her attachment to a younger man, and the artifice of an aristocratic family comes under strain. But something else is amiss.
Chucking out all but the barebones of Coward’s play, Stephan Elliott (Priscilla Queen of the Desert) updates it for a modern audience. The twenties remix of Sex Bomb might amuse some and bypass others, and it works well enough. But a seriously off-key running joke about the demise of an irritating dog will offend as many as it amuses.
“I don’t think I’ve ever sat through an entire period film in my life!” director Elliott has said. It’s quite clear he hasn’t. If he had, he’d know more about the kind of people who pay to see such films – and be able to tame his anarchic tendencies into something more serving of his audience.
Easy Virtue works only because of its top-notch cast and because - beneath it all – it conjures with some alluring complexities. But it’s largely unfunny and occasionally off-putting. Some will love it. Many more will wonder why the producers didn’t choose a director as accomplished as his cast.