Monday, September 28, 2009

9 reasons why I like Stephan Elliot's Easy Virtue (and Noel Coward in general)

1) Set in the late 1920s English countryside in a decaying estate, Easy Virtue is the ultimate anti-stuffy-Merchant and Ivory period piece film. You can tell because it features a jazzified version of "Car Wash" from the 1976 movie.

2) Easy Virtue concerns the arrival of the glamorous American blonde car racer Larita (Jessica Biel) at the stuffy and distinctively 19th century Whittaker household ruled by Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas). Larita has just impulsively married Mrs. Whittaker's son John (Ben Barnes), and she tries to ingratiate herself with the eccentric family, but Mrs. Whittaker is intent upon getting rid of her. In effect, Easy Virtue juxtaposes flapper Modernism with the remnants of Edwardian England, and Modernism looks much more fun.

3) Australian director Stephan Elliot, who also directed The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), shot Easy Virtue with a minimal budget, only about five hours a day of English winter light, and no time for his actors to rehearse. In effect, as he explains in the DVD commentary, everyone winged it as best they could. At one point, Elliot pulled the actors outside for a tracking shot just because it was easier and faster (with Colin Firth complaining the whole time), yet the movie succeeds in part due to its improvisational charm.

4) Easy Virtue has oddball transitions that feature CGI special effects. How often do "period" films do that? I especially liked one trick shot of an old Cole Porter record "Let's Misbehave," a song that nicely summarizes the subversive spirit of the film, but Elliot also includes multiple dissolves and lots of playful reflections of characters in spoons, a serving dish, a billiard ball, etc.

5) Who knew that Jessica Biel could hold her own against a British cast that features not only Scott Thomas but also Colin Firth? The last time I saw her, Biel was demeaning herself in Adam Sandler's I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

6) In Easy Virtue, Colin Firth plays the moody, unshaven, and quietly sardonic anti-Darcy Mr. Whittaker. Director Stephan Elliot claims that the main reason that Firth agreed to act in the movie was for one scene: a tango he gets to dance with Larita that oddly echoes the climactic dance scene in Visconti's classic The Leopard. Firth did this in spite of the fact that he freely admits that he can't dance.

7) Meanwhile, Kristin Scott Thomas did not initially want to play the controlling matriarchal Mrs. Whittaker. Since I still associate her with her much more playful rebellious role in The English Patient, I don't blame her reluctance, but she ultimately makes her character sympathetic. The movie shifts gears when it reveals her vulnerability and dignity even amidst her attempts to undermine Larita.

8) Stephan Elliot adapted Easy Virtue from Noel Coward's 1928 play of the same name. Oddly enough, Alfred Hitchcock adapted the same melodrama as a 1928 silent film with the same name. Elliot returns the favor by using Hitchcockian push-in type shots.

9) Noel Coward's plays specialize in cigarette smoking, cocktail drinking, tuxedo-wearing socialites who use wit as a form of self-defense against anyone and anything. In other words, his characters often embody icy intelligent cool. In the play Private Lives, lead character Elyot perhaps sums up Coward's aesthetic when he says "All of the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable . . . Laugh at them. Laugh at everything, all of their sacred shibboleths. Let's pity the poor philosophers." In the hands of Elliot, Easy Virtue captures the spirit of Coward's work with leisurely insouciance and aplomb.


sophomorecritic said...

Thanks for the comment.

How exactly did you find my blog? Was I generating traffic to your site? I'd be surprised.

Anyway, i hope you follow me on google reader or blogs i'm folliowing, maybe you'll like stuff that I write.

FilmDr said...

My pleasure, sophomorecritic. I think I noticed the link through StatCounter when you first made it.

Flickhead said...

I'm with you on Easy Virtue: it was an unexpected delight. As was Jessica. I've seen nearly all her films and, with the exception of The Illusionist, she's been wasted... until now.

FilmDr said...

Glad to hear it. I've been stumped by the lack of critical attention to this film. 51% on the Tomatometer? Why aren't American critics enjoying the film's juxtaposition between American brassiness and English decorum? At one point, John says to Larita, "Quit being so loud," and she replies, "Of course, I'm loud. I'm an American!" Just in terms of acting alone, the movie has much to recommend it.

Jason Bellamy said...

Who knew that Jessica Biel could hold her own against a British cast that features not only Scott Thomas but also Colin Firth?

I didn't.

I'm surprised to hear that, but it doesn't seem an impossibility. (If you said the same thing about Megan Fox, I wouldn't believe you.)

Interesting. I think I've missed this one here, but might put it in the Netflix queue.

FilmDr said...

I was very surprised about Jennifer Biel's star performannce. When she first showed up, I thought Stealth?!? But she has a great role, and Elliot continually emphasizes her American love for speed, motors, flapper freedom, etc. She's the hedonistic feminist thrown into a hidebound, convention-ridden society that still carries echoes of Tom Jones (the big hunt scene) and even the amateur theatrics of Jane Eyre. Easy Virtue is a bit like Upstairs, Downstairs viewed through the subversive lens of a punk Australian.