Easy Virtue

Risky trip to Roaring Twenties

Ben Barnes and Jessica Biel in 'Easy Virtue' Ben Barnes and Jessica Biel costar as husband and wife in ''Easy Virtue.'' (Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures Classics)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 29, 2009
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'Easy Virtue" is based on a 1925 Noel Coward play, and it strains like mad to hoist his weightless, witty Jazz Age banter into the 21st century. The strain shows, but not so badly as you might think; if you can ignore a ridiculously overbearing soundtrack - a big if - the film's a pleasant bauble. Still, those coming in cold may be forgiven for thinking they've wandered into "Atonement" remade as a farce.

If nothing else, "Easy Virtue" represents a calculated gamble on the part of its star, Jessica Biel, who plays an American aviatrix shocking the rural gentry of England. Her character, Larita, has married a boyish upper-class toff named John Whittaker (Ben Barnes, Prince Caspian in the last "Narnia" movie) and as the film opens, she arrives at his parents' country estate like a glittering visitor from Mars.

Mama is not amused. Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) rules the manor with an iron hand and isn't open to second-guessing from dashing divorcees, no matter how glamorous. Her husband (Colin Firth), a gone-to-seed army officer still bitter over losing his unit in the trenches of WWI, thinks Larita's much the best thing to turn up in years. In the middle are the two daughters, Dumpy (Katherine Parkinson as Marion) and Flighty (Kimberly Nixon as Hilda).

There's a bit of upstairs/downstairs comedy as the American finds herself more at home with the family's cynical butler (Kris Marshall), but mostly "Easy Virtue" is about the conflict between mother and daughter-in-law and the splendors of period production design. The costumes are an end in themselves; one shot of Biel in a sheer white evening gown is so gob-stopping the film repeats it in a later scene.

As directed by Stephan Elliott, who has previously veered from the cross-dressing high spirits of 1994's "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" to the lunatic thriller nonsense of "Eye of the Beholder" (1999), "Easy Virtue" never finds its rhythm. A scene in which Larita accidentally snuffs the family lapdog is played for peppy farce; the flashbacks to the father's wartime tragedies weight the film with more grief than it's equipped to handle. A subplot involving a rich neighbor's (Christian Brassington) flirtation with Mrs. Whittaker and his daughter's (Charlotte Riley) longstanding torch for John just languishes.

So, for all her efforts, does Biel, whose performance mostly consists of one daringly smoked cigarette after another. The actress really, really wants to break free of her roots as a WB teen heroine and on occasion, in "The Illusionist" or the little-seen 2006 Iraq war drama "Home of the Brave," she comes close. But there's no way to ignore the fact that she's fundamentally miscast as a Roaring Twenties jazz baby. Biel lacks the irony gene - acid wit simply isn't in her skill set - and without irony, Coward goes insipid. It's a grand game of dress-up but nothing more.

You're left, then, with an unstinting performance by Scott Thomas as a desperately controlling matriarch and a strikingly wrongheaded musical score, courtesy of Stephen Endelman, that mixes frenetic period jazz with such curiosities as a Dixieland version of the disco-movie chestnut "Car Wash" during a scene involving a tractor. The end credits unfurl to a hotcha remake of Billy Ocean's "When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going." By that point the tough will already have gone home.

EASY VIRTUE Directed by: Stephan Elliott

Written by: Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins, based on

a play by Noel Coward

Starring: Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Ben Barnes

At: Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner

Running time: 93 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (sexual content, brief partial nudity,

smoking throughout)