Easy Virtueby Roger Young / 17.09.2009
Take Steven Elliot, the director of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert and the creepy noir Eye Of The Beholder, and give him a cynical and funny Noel Coward play (once made into an early silent Hitchcock) about a upper crust family losing their farm in the financial downturn after the Great War, featuring a female American racing driver who has married the ineffectual son, a father who is still suffering from war flashbacks, and a conniving mother and what do you get?
Elliot has always made excellent casting choices and, in this, there is but one exception. Joining Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, the dry and witty Katherine Parkinson from the IT crowd is, wait for it, Jessica Biel. Suddenly not so excited anymore. To Biel’s credit this must have been an attractive proposition, one that may have raised her credibility and she acquits herself admirably, turning in a relatively decent performance (but really anything would be better than her work in Blade: Trinity or The Illusionist), but the tone of the film shifts so quickly from “comic” to “serious” and her voice is so flat and relentless that she is less hard-to-read and more don’t-want-to read.
In a film about a brash American’s effect on a snooty and damaged English family one has to ask why Elliot rested the success of this difficult Coward mix of pathos and zaniness on someone so un-brash, so decidedly not worth risking anything on. Ben Barnes’ performance is also an enigma, maybe because he plays cluelessness so well that it becomes a wonder that anyone could have fallen for him, let alone a Monte Carlo winning racecar driver dominatrix albeit one who, when her scandalous past is revealed, has a need to slip deeper into her one note reading instead of veering between righteous indignation and sadness, necessary emotions for the final shift of allegiances to deliver a satisfying denouement. It doesn’t help that Firth and Scott-Thomas are playing the period drama upper crust bit as if they’re in their sleep. Easy Virtue comes across as if everyone involved thought that the Noel Coward original was so strong that they could expect it to do all the work. Though, through all the hamminess, it is evident that the Coward play is complex enough to warrant a revisit. Seldom do the actors or the director rise to the challenge.