Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Easy Virtue


I just got back from seeing Easy Virtue with Lori. During the credits I was trying to think of a brief way to sum up the movie and the phrase delightfully subersive came to mind. We've been wating for a month now for it to come to a theater in our area (it opened in limited release on May 22nd - I will not bore you with my rant about how much I hate limited release dates). It's a fun little film and I thought it was SO worth the wait! The movie is based on a play by Noel Coward, which I must own to not being familiar with in the least. If the summary of the play on Wikipedia is accurate, the screenplay closely follows the original story in many respects, while tweaking Larita's backstory a bit and making the Colonel much more interesting IMO.

So a bit about the story...

Young and extremely immature John Whittaker (Ben Barnes, a.k.a. Prince Caspian) falls hard for Larita (Jessica Biel), a glamorous, free-thinking American woman - who just happens to be a racecar driver - and after a whirlwind affair they marry. When they descend on John's family, worlds collide when the straight-laced Whittaker family meets John's rather, *ahem*, unconventional bride. Larita tries her best to win over the family, but Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) isn't going to have any of that, and she's determined to save John from his folly and see him take up his responsibilities as heir of the estate. John's sisters, Hilda (Kimberley Nixon, also played Sophy Hutton in Cranford) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson), waffle between being intrigued by Larita and aiding and abetting their mother in her attempts to drive a wedge between the newlyweds. (You couldn't ask for a better wicked stepmother and stepsisters on film IMO!) When John's affections start to waver, Larita determines to fight back, and soon she must decide whether to sacrifice her individuality or make a break for freedom.

Easy Virtue, for the most part, is a light, fluffy, drawing-room comedy but it touches on some serious issues like the aftermath of war on survivors and lots and lots of marital discord. I was really reminded of the film A Good Woman, which I haven't watched in FAR too long. I thought the pacing was excellent (never a dull moment in this flick!) and the settings and costumes were gorgeous - absolutely top-notch! There was almost too much to absorb in just one viewing.

Jessica Biel really impressed me here - her turn as Larita probably ranks equal with my other favorite role of hers as Sophie in The Illusionist. She's gradually convincing me that she can take on period roles and do them credit. Here she wears the elegant 1920s-era costumes and the time period fits her like a glove. I was also quite impressed with the depth Biel gives Larita's character as the film progresses. When you're first introduced to her you really have no idea of the baggage she has in her past - she conceals it well, so it's all the more heart-breaking as it's revealed. And I had no idea this girl can SING! You can listen to a clip of her singing "Mad About the Boy" on Amazon.

Speaking of surprising singers, Ben Barnes's voice completely blew me away. (I'm also blown away by the fact that this is apparently the 1st time I've looked at his IMDB page, since I never connected the dots and realized he played the young Dunstan in Stardust.) His singing initially made me really like the character of John (his voice and presence fits the arrangments and setting of the film well) - however, eventually you realize the voice is the best thing about John as he's an annoyingly wishy-washy fellow. Seriously the guy needs grow some and take charge of his life, yeesh. Barnes is 28 this year, but he's got a bit of a ways to go before he can sell me on the idea that he's capable of playing a mature role. Between John Whittaker and Caspian, he's perpetually stuck in my head as a 20-year-old or thereabouts.

Oh, before I forget I must note Charlotte Riley's turn as Sarah Hurst, John's childhood friend and one-time hopeful sweetheart. I first saw Riley as Cathy in the latest version of Wuthering Heights - and the difference in the roles of Cathy and Sarah have both left me quite impressed with her skill. You really can't help but admire and like Sarah - John throws her over with very little thought, yet she manages to rise above the hurt and become Larita's friend and occasional advocate. Given how John's mother so obviously longs for Sarah as a daughter-in-law, it's pretty unbelievable - but nice - that Sarah takes the Larita turn of events so maturely. And speaking of Mrs. Whittaker, WHAT is the appeal of Kristin Scott Thomas as an actress? I have such a hard time watching her for some reason - but that actually worked in my favor because my natural annoyance fit with the character.

Colin Firth's turn as Mr. Whittaker, John's father and a survivor of the Great War, is really interesting to me. Firth is sort of playing against type - well known as the heroic, romantic leading type thanks to, primarily, his breakout role as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, it's a bit weird to see him play someone who's so burned out with his life that he just doesn't care at all. In fact it just hit me, but Mr. Whittaker is a bit like Mr. Bennet in P&P - both are long-suffering, henpecked husbands, but Whittaker's character is more of a loose cannon. Whittaker's a bit of a rake and a scruffy one to boot, but he carries so much guilt about being the only man of his generation to survive the war that he's put up with being completely controlled by the manipulations of his wife. He and Larita are kindred spirits and each completely understands the other's baggage - neither can fit into the prescribed roles society demands of them, so in the end it's basically a choice of curling up and dying or making a break for it.

The turning point scene where Whittaker and Larita tango is TO DIE FOR PEOPLE, SERIOUSLY. Yowzers!! :)

I'm going to have to track down a copy of Easy Virtue online or at the library to read it through - if the film is an accurate indication, Coward's got some very interesting and pointed things to say about hypocrisy, and as far as Larita's efforts go, a rather refreshing and respectful view of marriage (i.e., it takes work and no matter what the end outcome it's worth fighting for). Larita works her tail off to keep her husband, but he doesn't even meet her halfway by the end of the movie (can we say stupid & mind-bogglingly immature?!).

This movie was just the breath of fresh air I needed in my day. It delivered some great escapism and some unexpected moments of emotional depth. I'll definitely be adding it to my collection - it'll make a great double-feature with A Good Woman - and enjoying the soundtrack on repeat. Composer Marius de Vries's work on this film was just genius. His arrangements perfectly capture the effervescent feel of the time period, and the way he manages to incorporate contemporary songs like "Sexbomb" and "When the Going Gets Tough" and makes them work CONVINCINGLY in the score blows the mind. Looking forward to seeing this film "confection" again when it comes out on DVD (which will hopefully be soon!).


Anonymous said...

I'm really looking forward to seeing this movie. =}

Heidenkind said...

Wow! I definitely want to see Colin Firth tango! :) I doubt this movie will ever make it to our theater, but hopefully I'll be able to catch it on DVD. Thanks for the heads up!

Deborah said...

my sister who is a HUGE Ben Barnes fan is dying to see this just b/c of him. i on the other hand hate jessica biel so i will not.

Unknown said...

@Jen - I think you'll like it. Have you seen A Good Woman?

@heidenkind - You're welcome. The tango alone MAKES the movie in my view. ;)

@Deborah - But you like Colin Firth, right? Couldn't the awesomeness of seeing him tango counteract your Jessica Biel hate? ;) I'm not a huge fan of hers, but I really like her in this & The Illusionist.

And all, I can't believe I forgot to mention the DOG in my review - seriously hilarious!!

Charleybrown said...

Thanks! I just read parts of your review. I was afraid to read a spoiler but read enough to feel encouraged to watch it! It's on my list!!

Unknown said...

@Charleybrown - Hope you get to see Easy Virtue soon, I so enjoyed it!