When worlds collide, it’s usually not a pretty sight. Imagine the catastrophic showdown between a mother and her daughter-in-law meeting for the first time under rushed and unexpected circumstances. Now make the mother the head of a wealthy British family and make the daughter-in-law a brash American. Then set the scene in post World War I Britain on the mother’s large estate managed by quirky live-in staff and you have the story of Easy Virtue, which is a visual masterpiece and an entertaining film overall, despite not quite raising the stakes as far as they could have gone.
Based on the play of the same name by Noel Coward, young John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) is returning home to his stuffy, uptight family in Britain with his new wife, Larita (Jessica Biel), in tow. Larita is an American who defies the social mores and folkways of the time by competing in exhibitions that exclude women and by pursuing younger men. It follows that Larita should be absolutely abhorrent to John’s prim and proper mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) who expects John to take over the estate ever since his father (Colin Firth) mentally abdicated from that responsibility.
The premise is fertile territory for a “fish out of water” comedy of errors, with Larita doing her best to fit in while her mother-in-law does her best to kick her out. This story is also perfect for tender drama as two women fight for the lives they’re striving for. Regrettably, Easy Virtue takes a middle-of-the-road approach, neither climbing the heights of hilarity nor descending too far into the depths of drama, leaving the film in a somewhat bland area.
As for the comedy, the film makes a commendable attempt at humor by inserting several comedic moments that are genuinely humorous, but only on an intellectual level and rarely elicit a natural laugh. There are a few funny awkward moments, one of them involving the family pet. Unfortunately, Larita is too competent of a woman and too sure of herself for laugh-out-loud comedy to take place. Likewise, her mother-in-law doesn’t do much beyond complaining and setting up flowers that make Larita sneeze to drive her away. The comedy to be enjoyed is mostly found in the motley staff that manages to be memorable despite their paltry screen time. There’s something delightful and relatable in characters that must behave properly in most cases, but harbor thinly veiled dreams and resentment during those same moments.
Beyond the comedy, there are several dramatic stories happening at the same time and not all of them realize their potential. While John’s sisters Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katharine Parkinson) fit perfectly as examples of sheltered living, Larita’s father-in-law isn’t explored enough as a character. He’s become a withdrawn man because of his past where lives he was responsible for were lost. Firth handles the character well and his stoic face barely betrays any emotion. He’s an outsider, like Larita – except within his own family. This common ground should have been developed more to give their late-film bond more context. It’s also a shame that Larita’s mother-in-law only has one mode of operating throughout the film: constantly on the attack. Thomas makes the role seem effortless with her laser-like precision acting. It’s just unfortunate that her terrific range wasn’t capitalized on in the writing. Even when she has a tête-à-tête with her son about the family’s current financial circumstances she remains ice cold. A little bit of warmth would have gone a long way in adding another dimension to the character. Finally, Jessica Biel is refreshing to watch and her youth and vivaciousness adds a certain amount of rawness to her acting that blends exceedingly well with the practiced dramatic heavyweights of Firth and Thomas. The only drawback to Biel – which is barely worth mentioning – is that she looks a little too young for the role of the worldly woman she plays so well.
Criticisms aside, Easy Virtue is still a fine example of excellent filmmaking. Stephan Elliott hasn’t directed a film in some time, but his directorial instincts haven’t lost their edge. He makes great choices in his latest work, including creative transitions, downdating non-period songs and finding one of the most beautiful locations for a film. Elliott even courageously lets his actors sing a little bit, adding just enough musical magic to the film to keep audiences delightfully surprised. Easy Virtue is a well-crafted unique experience that most will enjoy and everyone should watch – if only for the novelty.