Here’s something we never thought we’d see: Jessica Biel blasting through the crusty British aristocracy like a gleeful pneumatic drill in an adap of an 80-year-old Noel Coward play. Squeezed in between the era of ’20s hedonism and ’30s sobriety, Easy Virtue is one of the Brit-wit playwright’s champagne-fizzy comedies that takes aim at the stifling (and stifled) upper class.
Events kick off when John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) – a proper Hooray Henry – returns home with daredevil Yank racer Larita Huntington (Biel) as his new bride. Soon, open class-warfare is declared by John’s grey-haired, -faced and -cardiganed mama (Scott-Thomas). Biel is a revelation, it’s not a complete surprise – she also impressed in The Illusionist. But the way she wraps those lips around her glamazon character’s rat-a-tat witticisms is glorious to behold. Her Larita is a platinumhaired, satin-draped landmine just waiting to blow the dust off those stuffy corridors of privilege.
Scott-Thomas’ Disneywitch matriarch and her two snobbish daughters (Katherine Parkinson, Kimberley Nixon) try to defuse Biel, but they never know what hit them. Meanwhile, Barnes charms and Colin Firth (as the clan’s grumpy patriarch) slinks across the background in roles that don’t require any heavy lifting, offering up quips and charisma as required.
Keeping the enterprise from disappearing up its own stagebound jacksy is Australian director Stephan Elliott, whose career lapsed into a patchy rhythm after his drag-com bull’s-eye The Adventures Of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert. He steers Virtue clear of the treacherous, energy-sapping rocks of countryhouse cliché, slipping in wickedly anarchic touches: pop standards ‘Car Wash’ and ‘Sex Bomb’ are given ’30s makeovers and lobbed like grenades onto the soundtrack.
It’s playful, it’s elegant, it’s fizzing with lacerating wit… after the stone-faced dreariness of The Duchess and Brideshead Revisited, it’s a welcome jolt of fresh air to see a Brit period piece you can just kick back and enjoy.
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