To say that Stephan Elliott was taken aback when approached to direct Easy Virtue would be an understatement. Asking the man behind the beloved drag queen road movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to adapt a Noel Coward play didn’t exactly seem logical. But the producers of the film insisted there was a method to their madness. Considering the plot of the stage version—a conservative British family contends with their son’s new progressive American wife—they thought it only appropriate to inject a modern spark into the talky period piece.
Going along with this strategy, the producers decided to recruit not only Elliott but also composer Marius De Vries, the man behind the scores of both Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet. His music, paired with Elliott’s images, results in an exciting mixture of the contemporary and the nostalgic. De Vries alternates between vaudevillian instrumentals and the vocals of his modern cast, while Elliott both embraces and defies the “invisible” cinematography endemic to similar adaptations. It’s a relief to watch a period film that never even comes close to stifling, no matter how uptight some of its characters are. The world of Easy Virtue is real and relatable; we are immersed there and we feel right at home.
We are more than helped along by the mostly impeccable cast. Ben Barnes is effervescent as John Whittaker, bringing a boyishly playful sex appeal to the romantic lead, and Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas are, of course, especially effective as his parents. A startlingly grizzled Firth delivers each line with an understated realism that is alternately hilarious and tragic. Thomas is equally believable as the rancorous Mrs. Whittaker, a role that could have easily slipped into caricature in the hands of anyone less capable. It is delightfully awkward to watch them tiptoe around each other as if they ended up married by accident. Even relative unknowns Katherine Parkinson and Kimberley Nixon are pitch-perfect as the Whittaker daughters.
I was skeptical about the casting of Jessica Biel in a period film, let alone as the lead alongside such acting royalty. Elliott has referred to Biel as a “blank slate” of an actor, and that may be true, but the slate just doesn’t get filled here. Though Biel tries her best, there’s something not-quite-there about her as Larita. She picks up more steam toward the middle of the film, once her character stops trying to please her fiancé’s family, but she never fully attains the level of charisma the role requires. Ultimately, you don’t quite understand why Larita inspires such vitriol from the women or such adulation from the men.
Still, Easy Virtue is both a faithful and refreshing film—and a very consistent, cohesive one at that. It does just what an adaptation should: give a fresh take on the original material while staying true to its spirit.