She is the guardian of the culture of her house.

Easy Virtue

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            When it comes to assembling talent, the British have no peers. Typically, almost all the characters in “Easy Virtue” are eccentric and wonderfully drawn. As we get to know each of them, the movie becomes a delicious interactive comedy of manners delivered by masters. Apparently, Noel Coward was just twenty-three when he wrot e this play and he intended it as a melodrama.

            Young people of today can barely imagine the premise of duty to generational roots. Few contemporary families have the power to direct, or even to make suggestions to their rootless young (see “Summer Hours”). And so Coward’s once sad story of the loss of a generation of men to World Wars I and the ensuing loss of the fortunes they had been destined to shape has become instead a marvelous comedy of a matriarch trying to wield her waning power as if nothing had changed.

            Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) is counting on her son John to rebuild the family fortune after marrying Sarah (Charlotte Riley), the daughter of the landowner next door, but John returns from Monaco with a new American wife, Larita (Jessica Biel). Mrs. Whittaker knows her forlorn husband, Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth), has no interest in helping, sunk as he is in post war gloom and facing life with a rigid British wife and two awful daughters.

            For Mrs. Whittaker, her new daughter-in-law made two horrible mistakes: she was born American and she won the Monaco automobile race which put her on the front pages of newspapers. The moment Larita walks in sparks fly in every direction, landing on the shoulders of everyone in the family and giving the movie its theme. Is there anything Kristin Scott Thomas can’t do? Granted, her lines are hard frozen icicles, but with only the slightest change in expression, she turns them into deadly weapons. Her judgments need no gestures; her tone alone is enough. She is guardian of the culture of her house.

            The surprise here is Jessica Biel who strides into her new world wrapped in the self-confidence of a winner but also without arrogance. Her battle with her mother-in-law is both the premise and the power of the film, and Ms. Biel carries it off beautifully. Her innocent young husband John (Ben Barnes) is so smitten with his new American wife that he simply can’t see the minefield ahead.

            In a touching performance, Colin Firth quietly shows Mr. Whittaker’s innate humor as well as his understandable descent into despair. While the four leads make the movie sing, other characters offer grand support. Watch especially Kris Marshall as Furber, the butler. Every one of these fine actors looks beyond the obvious surface of their characters and comes up with surprises. They make this delightful movie far more than just light comedy by stirring in some of the emotions of Noel Coward’s period drama. The high octane cast creates genuine comedy tinged with emotional loss, and that’s a trick.


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