Easy Virtue

Today we associate multi-talented playwright Noël Coward with witty repartee, a forgiving view of sexual peccadilloes, twenties pop standards by Cole Porter and Coward himself, and the heavy use of cocktails. The play, “Easy Virtue,” about a country household thrown into chaos when the family’s only son impetuously marries an American woman with a shadowy past, however, was a melodrama and the 1928 silent film version was directed by the none other than a young Alfred Hitchcock. 81 years later, Australian director Stephen Elliott (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) and co-writer Sheridan Jobbins have taken a very different tack, modified the plot, and turned the drama into a mostly comedic confection filled with witty repartee, a forgiving view of sexual peccadilloes, the music of Coward, Porter and, er, Tom Jones and Billy Ocean, and the heavy use of champagne and wine — but hardly any martinis.

Elliott does a good enough job finding the material’s comedic possibilities, but his style doesn’t quite fit and he gets into trouble when he indulges in some annoying Baz Luhrmann-esque musical/stylistic flourishes. Still, the main problem here is that, while Colin Firth as the family’s alienated patriarch and Kristin Scott Thomas as the repressed mother do first rate work, and Ben Barnes (a.k.a. “Prince Caspian”) is able as the young husband, Jessica Biel, in the crucial role of the extremely non-ugly American, barely registers. Her colorless performance tips the film over the edge of being an enjoyable diversion and into mediocrity.

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