Easy Virtue

What a wonderful movie! A feast for the eyes with English castles and gorgeous 1920s costumes and jewelry, witty even hilarious at times, weighty on occasion, full of twists and satisfying detours. After the surprise ending, my husband shouted out, “Give it five stars!” I agree.

I loved this movie. And that itself is a surprise because, I am sorry to say, I don’t like English movies for the most part. You have to drag me kicking and screaming into dramatizations of that stultifying class system and all those stiff upper lips. All the time I’m watching prettified Jane Austen society stories, I’m thinking of how those well-versed country gents starved my Irish ancestors. So, you can see it’s got to be one terrific English movie to get my approval.

Jessica Biel, almost too beautiful for her own good, was unforgettable as the romantic inspiration in the brilliant period film, The Illusionist, where she held her own with lead Edward Norton. Here in Easy Virtue, she’s the star, dazzling in every scene not just because of the gorgeous costumes, but because she’s allowed to express a daunting range of emotions in a script that is perfect, and perfectly suited for her. In addition to Biel, who’s an American, the rest of the cast is veddy British and veddy wonderful.

It’s the 1920s. Europe, especially England, is trying to recover from the World War that nearly wiped out a generation of its young men and left many of the survivors too disillusioned to function. In Monte Carlo, a feisty young American woman, Larita (Jessica Biel) shocks the world by winning the famous auto race, and then is demoted due to a technicality. But all is not lost. Among her crowd of admirers is a raffish young Englishman, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian), who sweeps her off her feet and after a quickie marriage takes Larita home to meet his family.

Home is an enormous country mansion, so huge that only half the rooms can be heated due to the high cost of maintenance. The family is a high maintenance lot, too. Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient) always presents a happy face in spite of calamity. She’s devastated by John’s marriage and his decision to visit for a while then disappear to London. She had counted on his coming home for good, to take over the management of the estate and save it from the circling creditors. For Mrs. Whittaker, Larita is her worst nightmare–an American who hates the countryside. Even worse she’s an American with allergies to the thousands of flowers Mrs. Whittaker so carefully tends. The older woman proceeds to become the mother-in-law from hell, albeit always with a smile and a witty put-down.

Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth, Mama Mia!) is unable to save himself, much less the estate. He’s still suffering from the horrendous events he witnessed in the war–and the achingly sweet memories of his short respite in France, away from the deadening demands of his role in upper class England. He retreats to his garage workshop and occasional bits of sarcasm. For him, Larita is a brightly colored leaf blown in by the wind, and he warms to her immediately.

In addition, there are two quirky younger sisters, a small household staff including a low-key butler who draws laughter with every line, and a variety of friends and neighbors. In other words, staying at the family home means the newlyweds never have a moment to themselves. John is off playing tennis or billiards, or prepping the fox hunt or the next party, and blithely ignoring reality. Larita is bored to tears, sick of the tasteless food, the hypocritical rules, and the horrible yapping lap dogs.

Things proceed in predictably awful, though delightfully clever, ways. Larita and Mrs. Whittaker spar for the right to claim young John. Larita rarely loses her American cool and usually rises victoriously, and hilariously, to any challenge posed by the deviously clever Mrs. Whittaker. The more Larita tries to bring in fresh air, though, the more the family closes in around her.

And haunting Larita like a bad scent is a secret from her past in Detroit. Worse are charges that after her first husband, an older man, died, Larita took many lovers, becoming a woman of “easy virtue.” Larita must decide if her young husband loves her enough to fight for her, or if, like the quintessential American, she must go her own way.

Although the tale is told in the typically luxurious English style, Easy Virtue is so well punctuated with hilarity that it seems to zoom on by as fast as one of Larita’s race cars. There’s not a lazy moment in the script. If you’re not laughing, you’re eavesdropping on a bit of sadness. “Brilliant” is an over-used word in movie reviews, but it is a most apt description of Easy Virtue.

Kudos must go to director and co-writer Stephan Elliot, who emerged from his self-imposed retirement and turned a 1928 Noel Coward play into one of the best movies of 2009. I can’t wait for his next film.

If you love wit, charm, fine acting, beautiful locations, and a happy, eventually, ending for all, don’t miss this one. Easy Virtue is showing exclusive at the new Carolina Asheville

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