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'Easy Virtue' is perfectly English, in that it neither delights nor disappoints

There's a whole genre of English manor-house comedies, as though there were something inherently funny about rich people in a rural setting. When Americans do this, they come up with Green Acres. For the English, it's programs and films like To the Manor Born, Cold Comfort Farm and Peter's Friends.

While our British cousins birthed us, they clearly lack our understanding of the humor inherent in treating a pig like a citizen.

But they do understand dry, understated comedy. Easy Virtue, an adaptation of Noel Coward's play, does a few amusing things with the genre, but mostly it sticks politely to form and, in the manner of a good Englishman, neither excels beyond its station nor falls into disgrace.

The most interesting thing about the film is the music, a collection of bawdy rock hits redone in the style of the film's period, the 1920s, mixed together with some numbers penned by Coward himself. The cast also occasionally breaks into song, making this a semi-musical. I felt a little cheated that no full-scale music/dance numbers occurred, but it seemed like just when that was about to happen, everyone realized that it would be unseemly. This never stopped Busby Berkeley, but he was notably un-English.

The story is classic Coward: In a fading but grand country house, the matronly Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) is awaiting the return of her only son, John (Ben Barnes), who has been off either gallivanting or carousing or perhaps ambling. Shockingly, he returns home with a new bride, the Very Modern Larita (Jessica Biel), who is not only older than him, but also rather American. The scandal!

John's two sisters are strange products of sheltered country living. Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) has a punk-rock obsession with news stories of murder and depravity, which is a forward-thinking attitude to have 50 years in advance of Johnny Rotten. Meanwhile, Marion (Katherine Parkinson) remains obsessed with her lost love, who supposedly resembles Fatty Arbuckle or Joseph Stalin.

When Larita arrives, everyone is set atwitter, especially Mrs. Whittaker, who was rather used to being the only Mrs. Whittaker in the house, and to giving orders and making tasteless foodstuffs, as is right and proper. After Larita commandeers the kitchen, converses with the servants (egad!) and kills the family dog, things go poorly for her. Her saving grace is that she's entirely as good-looking as Jessica Biel. Thus, Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth), who, unlike his wife, never had surgery to implant a broomstick up his bumhole, takes a fancy to her.

From there, things become very predictable, which is, I guess, how the English like things. Well, predictable and flavorless, but the film is luckily not the latter. Coward's wit comes through at times, but not in the rapid-fire manner of his later plays. There are a few flashes of verbal brilliance, and Biel is surprisingly good at pulling off the lines, but there are also stretches without any repartee.

These are filled with some physical comedy, including a knickerless dance number. (Sadly, it's not Ms. Biel going knickerless, but at least knickers are shucked, which is how knickers are best treated during a cancan.) Things move along smoothly while the scandals mount, motorcycles roar through a fox hunt, and the servants speak dryly and with levity. Kris Marshall is the scene-stealer as Furber the butler, who does that peculiarly English thing wherein the most ordinary sentence uttered in the most ordinary manner becomes simultaneously a put-down, a celebration and an example of irony.

If the film has a flaw, it's that it's a little too understated, which is odd, considering that the director, Stephan Elliott, is best-known for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Martin Kenzie's cinematography is gorgeous but dull. He makes the most of the English countryside and Biel, the two of which seem to be in a sort of beauty one-upmanship contest, but most of the shots are textbook, with standard framing and perfectly even lighting. Pretty and technically adept, but not arresting.

Still, in spite of not living up to its potential, Easy Virtue is a smooth ride for its brief 93 minutes. There's no waste, and even as everything happens as it seems it must, the film holds exactly the degree of excitement and interest needed to keep one from pulling the gold watch from one's fob, gazing through one's pince-nez, and sighing in hopes of a soon-to-come ending. Indeed, not once did I think of going for my fob. And that, in itself, is an achievement, if an unprepossessing one. Thus, quite English: The job was done well, but not so well as to make others feel bad about themselves.

Easy Virtue
Rated PG-13 · 96 minutes · 2008
Official Site: www.sonyclassics.com/easyvirtue
Director: Stephan Elliott
Writer: Noel Coward, Stephan Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins
Producer: Joseph Abrams, Barnaby Thompson, James D. Stern, Paul Brett, Louise Goodsill, Douglas Hansen, James Spring, Cindy Kirven, George McGhee, Ralph Kamp, Peter Nichols and Tim Smith
Cast: Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes, Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson, Pip Torrens, Christian Brassington, Charlotte Riley, Kris Marshall and Jim McManus

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What others are saying (3)

Memphis Flyer Minor Virtue Noël Coward adaptation is an uneasy mix of period setting and modern sensibility. by Chris Herrington 06/18/2009
Portland Mercury Jessica Biel Ruins Everything The jazz-era period piece Easy Virtue is a Jessica Biel vehicle. Avoid it at all costs. by Alison Hallett 06/18/2009
The Coast Halifax Easy Virtue a light concoction The friction in Easy Virtue crosses class, manner and continent. by Mark Palermo 06/11/2009

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