Good writing creates its own pace and Noel Coward’s early 1920s play Easy Virtue fairly hums along in an era – nearly 90 years later – where men like the author would either have their own TV talk show or have died of broken dreams trying to break the nexus of Hollywood producers wanting scripts aimed at 14-year-old minds and their adult equivalents.
Larita (Jessica Biel), a Detroit racing car driver-adventuress marries younger Johnny Whittaker (Ben Barnes) and they return home to his English country mansion where this only son is expected to take over running the estate.
It is apparent early on that Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas) has no time for the new bride and doesn’t appreciate her desire to settle in London where Johnny will – horror of horrors – “get a job.” Veronica runs the mansion with a stern, lacking in humour manner while WWI veteran and husband Jim (Colin Firth) retreats from her as much as possible and her two daughters scrabble about in complete disarray, attendant to their mother’s every wish.
The wealthy neighbouring family all have dibs on the Whittakers’ lives and it is apparent that Larita’s appearance not only interrupts the status quo but Vanessa’s plans for her family as well.
Biel is good as the heroine, whose past life holds secrets that even Veronica would not have contemplated, and her sassy attitude within a fun-loving, yet ladylike, demeanour is a delight.
Scott Thomas takes a leap from attractive female lead to the kind of role Anne Bancroft found herself in after The Graduate (1967) and does well. This beautiful star is made to look particularly matronly and her character can be disagreed with without necessarily being loathed.
Firth is in familiar territory as the ‘other’ love interest, although this hand isn’t played until the last scene (sorry). His explanation to Larita as to why he stayed in Europe after the war ended – only to be retrieved from a brothel by Veronica – is particularly moving and one can imagine Coward writing this scene in tears for all the young men who did not return home.
Kris Marshall delights as a naughty butler, just one of the many effervescent bubbles that make Easy Virtue (2008) a winning vintage.