Friday, June 19, 2009

Easy Virtue (Rhoades)

“Easy Virtue” Offers Noël Coward’s Wit

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Nobody was wittier than Noël Coward. His plays were masterpieces of charming repartee.

Back in 1924 when Coward was merely 25-years-old he penned his 16th play, a clever drawing room melodrama called “Easy Virtue.” It’s the story of an Englishman who impetuously marries a pretty American divorcee to his mother’s horror.

Who would have expected Coward’s chatty play to be turned into a 1928 silent movie? And by none other than suspense maestro Alfred Hitchcock.

Being a silent film, the only dialogue Hitchcock preserved from the play is a single word screen that has the mother asking, “Have you had as many lovers as they say?” and the American wife responding, “Of course not. Hardly any of them actually loved me.”

That gives you a hint of Coward’s witticisms, but the movie bore little resemblance to the play.
Now director Stephan Elliott (best known for the kitschy cross-dressing film, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) has brought “Easy Virtue” to the screen once again, but this time with most of the words intact.

“Easy Virtue” – an amusing film about the culture clash between smug English gentry and a vulgarian American – is playing at the Tropic Cinema.

In this stylish remake, Ben Barnes plays weak-willed John Whittaker. Kristin Scott Thomas is the conniving mother. And Jessica Biel (named Sexiest Woman Alive by Esquire Magazine) is the new wife who dares come between mother and son.

Biel is a good choice for the role of Larita. As Coward’s original script described the character:
“She is tall, exquisitely made-up and very beautiful. Her clothes, because of their simplicity, are obviously violently expensive.”

Yep, that’s Biel in a performance that proves she’s more than just a pretty girl from TV’s “Seventh Heaven.”

The plot focuses on the battle between two women over the son. In Coward‘s autobiography, he said the point of the play was “to compare the déclassé woman of today with the more flamboyant demi-mondaine of the 1890’s.”

Even so, the theme is about hypocrisy. While falsely accusing her son’s new wife of having – as the title implies – easy virtue, Mrs. Whittaker shows her own moral ambiguity in her quest to destroy the marriage.

Noël Coward chose not to mention the silent film version of his play in his autobiography, a telling omission. However, today’s Noël Coward Society gave this 2008 film a good review. Probably because Coward’s famous bon mots are plentiful.

As Coward once said, “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”
[from Solares Hill]

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