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“Easy Virtue, Easy Going Down, Like Nice Champagne”

Noel Coward’s 1924 comedy “Easy Virtue” is still as breezy and witty as it must have been for audiences during the Jazz age.  Guided by “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” director, Stephan Elliot, and featuring wickedly delicious performances by Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth, this adaptation makes for a delightful evening, even for jaded modern audiences.

 

Young John Whitaker (“Prince Caspian’s” Ben Barnes) brings Laurita, his new wild American bride (Jessica Biel), to his British estate, where she quickly infuriates the priggish matriarch (Scott Thomas) and her hen-pecked daughters (Kimberley Nixon and Katherine Parkinson).  Only the industrious butler (Kris Marshall, “Love Actually”) and the disheveled patriarch (Firth) warm to the new member of the family.  Consequences turn against Laurita, and she must battle not only her accidental killing of a family pet and her participation in an indecent version of the Can-Can dance, but also her past could shatter the last bit of goodwill her husband has for her.

 

Elliot’s visual touches demonstrate the director’s talent.  Best illustrated, the camera captures Scott Thomas lining up the balls on a pool table; she makes her shot and the EIGHT ball rolls towards the camera, finally reflecting her face in the black ball, a perfect metaphor for the lady’s tenuous financial and familial grasp.

 

Elliot clashes modern and vintage sensibilities, a thin tightrope, and succeeds with the gamble.  He juxtaposes 20’s hit songs, particularly Cole Porter standards like “Let’s Misbehave,” with jazzy versions of modern songs like Tom Jones’ “Sex Bomb” and the 70’s hit “Car Wash” and spins them as if they had been written and performed in the 20’s.

 

Elliot and co-screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins keep Coward’s best lines, biting and yet eloquent. When Laurita enters her husband’s room that looks like it hadn’t been redecorated since he was 5, she states “We’ve been sent to our WOMB.”  It perfectly mocks the tight hold Mrs. Whitaker holds on her three children.

 

Scott Thomas brilliantly portrays the ultimate Mother-in-Law from hell.  Dismissive and haughty, her character lords over the house like a Doberman.  The actress has no chemistry with anyone else, which is appropriate for a cold-hearted woman who feels her children owe her for their births.  As the only one not caught in her web, Firth’s character allows his wife to control the house, but with visual disdain, reminds her that her ferocity has zero power over him.

 

Nixon and Parkinson are hilarious as the flighty but lonely women, damaged by their mother’s venom.  They have been poisoned years ago and act like junior vipers around their new sister-in-law.  Marshall, as the house’s man Friday, is the audience’s proxy, ironically commenting on the family’s shenanigans with only his facial expressions.

 

Sadly, the two lovers are the biggest disappointments.  Barnes, who was stale as the title character in the second “Narnia” film, is not much better here.  Biel, luminous in the period piece “The Illusionist,” seems out of place in this film.  Stiff in her line readings, she does at least show off her lovely singing and dancing talents, the latter in a naughty tango with her character’s father-in-law.

 

A reminder that everything old is new again, this rendition, which hasn’t been on the screen since a very young Alfred Hitchcock adapted it in 1928, still has the kick of a sparkling glass of champagne.  Grade: B+

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