Written by Stephan Elliott & Sheridan Jobbins
Directed by Stephan Elliott
Starring Jessica Biel, Kristen Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes and Colin Firth
Mrs. Whittaker: Smile, Marion.
Marion Whittaker: I don’t feel like smiling.
Mrs. Whittaker: You’re English, dear. Fake it.
You pretty much know from the very start whether EASY VIRTUE will be an easy experience for you or an excruciating one. It opens with a big, bright opening musical number that cuts back and forth between a staged choreography, complete with fans and clam shells and a sepia soaked introduction to Jessica Biel as Larita, the first female race car driver, winning a race and finding the man of her dreams at the finish line. By the time you meet her man, John Whittaker’s (Ben Barnes) eccentric British family at their country home, the ridiculously dramatic tone of the film is completely set. It is forced, exaggerated and awkward. It isn’t until a few scenes later that it becomes apparent that THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT director, Stephan Elliott, is trying to be farcical on purpose. By that time, it hardly even seems to matter.
John has just married Larita without telling his family first and he is bringing his American girl home to meet Mum and Dad. Kristen Scott Thomas plays the matriarch of the household and she will have nothing to do with this American tart waltzing into her home and stealing her baby boy from her. After all, it was up to him to take over the house at some point and Larita being accustomed to life in the fast lane, means she will not be entertaining the notion of living in the country. And so the tug of war between mother and daughter-in-law begins. It isn’t pretty, let me tell you. It also isn’t that interesting. The son they are fighting over is a bit of a spineless drifter, first of all, so he hardly seems worth all the trouble. And then there are the ladies themselves. Thomas, who has been making something of a successful resurgence in the last year, looks as though she may implode at any moment as she frantically rushes about and barks nonsense at everyone. And then there’s Biel, who is clearly trying to improve her standing as a leading lady. She isn’t the presence she needs to be to throw this family into such turmoil and subsequently only half holds our own and our attention. Colin Firth is the only presence that grounds everything. This is primarily because he seems about just as interested in being there as we are.
Elliott never quite seems to get a grasp on how he wants EASY VIRTUE to play out. Once the battle between the ladies is fully on, it finds an acceptable pace but it is still strained. People occasionally sing out of nowhere. Modern songs are repurposed with a big band sound to contemporize the period genre. And he is constantly forcing camera tricks to spice things up but they are entirely transparent. You end up waiting for the only possible conclusion to come and realizing pretty quickly that this film is about as virtuous as it is easy.