Tuesday, October 28, 2008

London Film Festival Day 14 - EASY VIRTUE

EASY VIRTUE started life as a dark, acerbic play by British dramatist and wit, Noel Coward. His aim was to show the deep-veined snobbery, repression and hypocrisy of the upper class by throwing a brassy American with a shady past into its circle. Larita is a middle-aged woman who has been through a scandalous divorce, in a period (the 1920s) when a woman taking a lover resulted in excoriating newspaper coverage. She then proceeds to make a disastrous marriage to a callow, parochial English boy called John Whittaker. John's family view her as an entirely unsuitable match. She's old, vulgar and has no idea of what country life entails. By the end of the play, everyone looks bad. Larita has acted foolishly, both in her previous marriage and the current one. Her husband is a simple-minded fool. His family are self-involved snobs. As is typical with Coward, the wit sparkles, but it cuts right to the core of English snobbery.

This new adaptation by director Stephan Elliott takes a dark, subversive play and transforms it into a frothy, rather crass film that attempts to splice some of the darker material (particularly concerning the tragedy of World War One) with cheap sight gags and ludicrous music choices. Larita has to look out of place in a country house. But do we really need a series of jokes involving her sitting on the family dog and then burying him in the back garden? Do we really need to see her riding a motorcycle to hounds? Do we really need a tipsy butler pulling faces? The same vulgar sense of comedy is present in the music choices. At first, Elliott makes a rather charming use of songs by Coward and Porter. John Whittaker often sings romantic lines to Larita and I think it's effective in showing how childish he is - thinking that marriage is like a love song. But then, Elliott goes a step too far, taking modern cheesy hits like "Carwash" and "Sex-bomb" and having them performed in a pastiche of a 1920s Noel Coward style.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that this version of EASY VIRTUE is a pastiche - taking all that is most recognisable in the English country house comedy - shrill uptight mother; slacker father; drunk butlers; rumpy-pumpy in the barn - and tries to package it as something new and modern and original.

The resulting film is not without its pleasures. Kristin Scott Thomas is superb as the acidic mother, Veronica Whitaker. Jessica Biel holds her own as Larita and Ben Barnes has the sort of bland, unthreatening beauty that makes a good milksop husband. But Colin Firth, as papa Whitaker, is betrayed by a role that has been dramatically pumped up from the original play and seems incredibly forced. The same could be said for the entire production. Occasional laughs aside, Elliott has transformed a subtle and savage play into a crass parody that undermines any serious social point it might've made.

EASY VIRTUE played Toronto and London 2008 and goes on release in the UK on November 7th.

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