Not quite Brideshead

March 28, 2009

Easy Virtue

Directed by Stephan Eliot

Written by Stephan Eliot and Sheridan Jobbins

With Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas & Colin Firth

In cinemas

In the era of the Great Financial Crisis, where a woman can (almost) become US president and imperialist wars nibble at the fabric of society, what can a Noel Coward-inspired film have to tell us about class, society and gender?

Reading the publicity notes, which describe Easy Virtue as a film about manners, one might think the answer is nothing at all.

Add the fact that one of the leading players is the inimitable Mr Darcy (Colin Firth), and I was fully expecting a Jane Austinesque genteel, drawing-room drama about marriage and suitability. I was wrong.

The film opens with Larita (Jessica Biel) winning the Monaco grand prix only to be disqualified afterwards — apparently because she is not a man.

Biel plays a very strong leading woman. On her marriage to the young, dashingly handsome John Whittaker, she travels with him to his country home in England's rural south — a stately manor, replete with hounds, foxes, horses and a dysfunctional family.

On one level, the film could be viewed as a purely personal study. Each of the well-drawn characters is fatally flawed in different ways. The launching of the feisty Larita into the mix makes the situation explosive.

At another level, however, the film is also a study of the decay of the English ruling class after World War I, bearing some slight similarity to Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

Firth, for instance, plays a deeply disillusioned Jim Whittaker, John's father, who, we are informed, roamed Europe in a debauched state after the Armistice in 1918 — until he "wandered home" one day.

The truth is that Jim was deeply impressed by the war. As the community leader of his village, he took all the men of fighting age to war with him. None, other than he, returned. The experience made him a pacifist who refuses to toe the class line.

Kristin Scott-Thomas plays Veronica Whittaker, the matriarch of the household, who is torn apart by her love for the old ways, and her desperate need to sell off large parts of the family estate simply to pay the bills.

Ominously, the film is set in the winter of 1928-29, just months before the stock market crash that signalled the beginning to the Great Depression.

It is Larita who is the central character of the film, however, and her self-revelation drives the plot.

Larita was a working-class woman from Detroit who made good. Her father was a production line worker, she tells us, and she has a love of all things mechanical and modern (as against horses and all things traditional); her only means of income is the racing car that she owns.

She is strong and independent, but she hides a secret.

Larita puts off her mother-in-law with her practicality, her easy way with the servants and her supposed "easy virtue".

She has one of the best lines of the film when responding to a quip from Veronica asking if the stories about how many lovers she'd had were true. "Of course they're not true", she retorts. "I don't think any of them actually loved me."

As one would hope, the dialogue is dry, witty and fast. Some of the support characters, notably the butler and the gardener, have great parts and are sure to amuse.

The final scenes are compelling and the ending is not as predictable as one might think. If the film has a political flaw, it is that all the women are cast as villains — with the exception of Larita.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.