An unvirtuous affair to forget

By Silvia de Somma

Easy Virtue, a play by English playwright Noel Coward and then a silent film by Alfred Hitchcock, is director Stephan Elliott’s fifth movie. Depicting the whirlwind marriage of an upper-class Englishman, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), to an adventurous American widow, Larita (Jessica Biel), Easy Virtue highlights the effect of the union on John’s strictly traditional family.

Veronica Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas), the clan’s matriarch, is trapped in a loveless marriage to Jim Whittaker (Colin Firth) for propriety’s sake and blatantly resents her son’s impulsive nuptials. Her two daughters, Hilda (Kimberly Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson) are respectively unmarried and uneligible, but content with their laidback lifestyle at the family home. The film’s main focus is the clash between the free loving jazz age of the United States and John’s regimented English existence. While the movie relies too heavily on period costuming and music to convince the audience of the setting, it successfully demonstrates the escalating and continuous discord between strongly independent Larita and the staid, respectable Whittaker family.

Although Biel definitely looks the part of a 1920s vixen, she can not seem to hold her own next to her co-stars — veteran, newcomer or unknown alike — despite captivating performances when on screen alone. Her flat, forced and uncomfortable delivery somewhat shatters the illusion created by her hair, makeup and wardrobe whenever she says a line to another character.

Another hiccup in a potentially engrossing period movie is the chemistry, or lack thereof, between the two main characters. Barnes fails to capture any intensity with Biel that would make their romance believable. Although both strive to create a spark, it never fully comes across. This leaves a potentially passionate marriage merely an awkwardly intimate friendship. Their artless rapport is heightened by Sarah Hurst (Charlotte Riley), Burns’ particularly likeable ex-girlfriend and neighbour, who not only has a palpable connection with him but exudes an innate sensuality that Biel does not quite capture.

Thomas and Firth are captivating as the unhappy, bitter and resentful married couple, although stiff and pretentious characters are not necessarily a stretch for either of these reputable actors. Although neither claim top billing, their subtle and invigorating performanes are doubtless the highlight of the film.

Both roles are vaguely reminiscent of their Gosford Park and Pride and Prejudice days — when the two are on screen the dialogue lights up and becomes clever and engaging. Although Firth’s role is shamefully small, he manages to infuse charm and humour into his character and captures the audience’s grudging admiration and support.

Thomas combines dry wit and nuanced inflection, building her character into something more than just the stereotypical prickly British matriarch. Throughout the movie, she is revealed as a woman desperately trying to hold everything together as it falls apart. She is a creature audiences can not help but pity a little.

In the end, Virtue still falls short of whatever it tries to achieve, which is never really determined anyway. The conflict — as well as the movie’s potential — simmers under the surface for the duration of the film, yet never boils over, leaving viewers unsatisfied and disappointed. Despite a tremendous supporting cast, fantastic costumes and stunning visuals, Easy Virtue just doesn’t live up to its potential.

It tries so hard to be everything at once that it fails to be anything at all.

Nonetheless, it is fairly enjoyable and manages to bring about a chuckle or two. If nothing else, it should be commended for attempting to revive a jazz-era story of a British-American cultural conflict with such well-intentioned, yet ultimately misguided enthusiasm.

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