Saturday, October 03, 2009

Movie Log: Easy Virtue

Easy Virtue adapts a Noel Coward play from the '20s, so it's witty but more essentially serious than the standard for "comedy" these days. The Wife and I saw it recently, mostly because she'll see anything that's a period piece (though she prefers the 19th century) and because I have a weakness for watching attractive people in evening clothes throw verbal daggers at each other across drawing rooms.

It's another one of those stories in which an English aristocrat marries an American -- though, in this case, the American isn't rich, which is usually the case. (The English aristocratic family isn't rich any more, of course, but that's required by the form.) The aristocrat in this case is John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), who had seemed independent and free-spirited to his new wife Larita (Jessica Biel) until he takes her back to the ancestral pile, where he swiftly falls into old habits, namely coming under the thumb of his domineering mother (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Thomas, by the way, is brilliantly playing the part Emma Thompson was trying and failing to do in the recent Brideshead Revisited movie. And I say that as a longtime fan of Ms. Thompson.

The rest of the family consists primarily of two younger sisters, who are there to be a Greek chorus, to turn against Larita, and to form an estrogen cluster with their mother. There's also a mildly Byronic father (Colin Firth), who lost his faith in humanity during The War (the big one, of course), had to be dragged back home by his wife afterwards, and hasn't been good for anything since but brooding and tinkering.

Larita, a race-car driver, does not fit into this very rural household, where the standard amusements are lawn tennis, shooting, hunting, and similar sporty things. And so she slowly becomes one end of a tug-of-war for her husband, against her mother-in-law, and has mostly lost before she realizes what's happening.

Easy Virtue is witty and smart, a strong movie about families and regrets, how the past unstoppably controls the future, and was a real find. The acting is uniformly good, though Thomas and Firth get the best work in. It was essentially missed in theaters, but maybe it will find a more appreciative audience out on video.

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