Based on Noel Coward's stageplay of the same name, Easy Virtue is an engagingly acted, smartly scripted film — and that rare period piece that refuses to yield to predictably stuffy interpretations of what does and what doesn't constitute familial screen conflict in times gone by. How is this best illustrated, you ask? Why, there's a scene in which Jessica Biel crushes a little dog to death with her ample derriere. Yes, seriously.
Starring Biel and Ben Barnes (above), the film centers around John Whittaker, a young Englishman from a prim and proper family who falls madly in love with Larita, a sexy and glamorous American woman who, improbably enough, makes a living driving a motorcar. They marry impetuously, but when the couple returns to the stuffy Whittaker family home, John's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) has an instant allergic reaction to her new daughter-in-law. Sparks fly, and a battle of wits ensues, with the approval of John's sisters (Katherine Parkinson and Kimberley Nixon) serving as the swing-vote opinions on the nuptials, and the couple's future.
Cast somewhat intriguingly against type as a bit of a cad, and layabout, Colin Firth brings pleasantly shaded and subtle tones of swallowed sadness to his role as John's stubbled, war veteran father, even as he bickers and banters with relish. As the film unfolds we learn more about his outcast status, and the disdain with which John's mother holds him. Biel, sort of playing with fire in respect to bombshell expectations, goes platinum blonde for the role, and does a solid job. There's something inescapably modern about Biel — and I'm not talking just her body — but in both The Illusionist and now here, she does the necessary work to make you believe her character fits within the times. More demure wallflowers I think she would have trouble with, but slipping into corsets or flapper outfits and playing women a bit ahead of their respective times is well within her grasp, and something that no doubt helps her keep some of the dreck genre screenplays she must be continuously peddled at bay.
At its core, Easy Virtue is both a light comedy of manners and an attack on both the practice and practitioners of outmoded Victorian control, and trying to live out one's life (either vicariously or for material gain) through the lives of their children. That it's a period piece is almost incidental, given the towel-snapping pleasure of much of the dialogue. (Where else does one get to hear one character slag another as "swinging your wherewithal like a cat in heat"?) Composer Marius de Vries provides a peppy score that serves the material quite well, but the grander portion of the film's vibrancy must be credited to Australian director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), who stages scenes with a brisk, flirty touch while letting the dramatic stakes rise naturally to a slow boil, courtesy of the script, co-written by Sheridan Jobbins.
The only story strand that feels a bit off, or leaves one really wanting for some further connective tissue, concerns siblings Philip and Sarah (Christian Brassington and Charlotte Riley), longtime family friends of the Whittaker clan. John's casual shelving of Sarah as a potential mate — and her rather blithe acceptance of it — gets its own scene of explanation, but feels like it could've been milked for more, either dramatically or comedically. Similarly, the ending may strike some as a bit pat; it's best if it's taken as a sort of tonal snapshot of the characters' minds at that particular point rather than a fixed, end-point conclusion.
Oh, and finally, of course, there's that scene where Biel's Larita, quite accidentally, sits on the Whittaker's prized tiny pooch. In one sense, it feels like a put-on from a Farrelly brothers flick. But Elliott and his cast cleverly spin it forward, and let it be both silly and panicked, having actual consequences. A lot of comedies in general could learn something from that, regardless of the time period in which they're set. (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13, 93 minutes)