An over-parted Jessica Biel and a just-right Ben Barnes in EASY VIRTUE
Elegance and wit are key elements in the work of Noel Coward, so what the hell is Stephan Elliott doing writing and directing an adaptation of the Master’s EASY VIRTUE? Elliott’s previous films include THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT and the wholly over-the-top, migraine-inducing WELCOME TO WOOP WOOP. Let it be said that he does bring some flair to this project, largely through Martin Kenzie’s often strikingly inventive cinematography, but Elliott’s hand remains ever-heavy when it comes to farce, as well as the genteel sort of sentiment at which Coward was so adept. He’s laced his movie with period songs, some by Coward, others by Cole Porter, but tips his hand when he incorporates Jazz Age reinterpretations of more modern ditties like – yes – “Car Wash.” It’s that warped, tiresomely subversive notion of “outrageous fun,” also shared by fellow Aussie Baz Luhrmann,, that other hallucinatory Diaghilev.
Some quirk of casting has Jessica Biel playing Larita, the American upstart who marries into a stuffy Brit aristo family, complete with the kind of country seat we Yanks are meant to drool in unison over. She’s definitely blonde and brassy enough to be appalling to her new in-laws, the Whittakers, but she’s also direly lacking in the requisite high comedy skills. The Cowardian lines are not blithely tossed over a shoulder, but enunciated by her with torturous precision, especially one certain riposte, “I’d wring your neck if I could find it,” which actually was a real-life threat Coward once uttered to an obstreperous Claudette Colbert during a BLITHE SPIRIT rehearsal. (The unnecessary, jarring inclusion of this line, so maladroitly delivered, says just about everything about the lowness of Elliott’s basic taste level, as does his thwackingly unfunny emphasis on the death of unfortunate dog Larita happens to sit upon.)
As Larita’s adoringly feckless, pop tune-crooning young husband, John Whittaker, Ben Barnes brings the only fresh note to this affair. Kristen Scott Thomas here, and recently on Broadway in a maladroit THE SEAGULL, is rather resting on her histrionic laurels these days, and hammily shows nothing new in the too-easy-for-her role of his hideously snobbish mother. Colin Firth is also too easily typecast, although he is at least subdued, in his role of ineffectual, sad Dad suffering the after-effects of WWI and allowing wifey to run roughshod over him and his estate. Kimberley Nixon and Katherine Parkinson as John’s two sisters, under Elliott’s guidance, are unable to even approximate anything like glitteringlyamusing bitchery, resulting in two wholly unappetizing, indistinguishable screeching harpies.
Charlotte Walter’s costumes are lovely, although she has dressed in Biel in sleek Jean Harlow 1930s style, while the other ladies sport the more shapeless silhouettes landed gentry wore in the 1920s. I guess this is meant to underline Larita’s bracing modernism in this dying world of decaying privilege, but subtle it ain’t. To experience how this sort of thing can and should be done, get hold of Stephen Fry’s delicious, unsung Evelyn Waugh adaptation, BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS, which proves that, even in these beknighted times, so lacking in sophisticated class, it can occasionally be brought off properly by the right people.
Isabel Jeans as Larita in EASY VIRTUE (1928)
Talking of elegance and wit seems the right time to bring up an actress who starred in the 1928 Alfred Hitchcok version of EASY VIRTUE, Isabel Jeans (1891-1985). She trod the West End board for decades, the personification of glamorous elan. A special favorite of that supreme arbiter of all things soignée, Cecil Beaton, she was dressed by him on the stage and also in the role for which she is best remembered today, Aunt Alicia in GIGI (1958). The scene in which, as an aging, reclusive courtesan, she instructs the innocent Gigi in the subtleties of her trade, including lessons in cigar choosing, eating ortolans and jewel selection is the highlight of that film, a perfect illustration of the deft light comedy technique Jeans possessed in spades.
in GIGI, with Leslie Caron: “With teeth like that, I could have devoured all of France, and half of Europe, too!”
with Hermione Gingold, GIGI
She had a brief sojourn in Hollywood in the late ‘30s, at Warner Brothers, and put light comediennes like Claudette Colbert (in the charming, underrated TOVARICH, 1937) and Carole Lombard FOOLS FOR SCANDAL, 1938) on their mettle. In TOVARICH, she was entrancingly airheaded as a Parisian matron who becomes besotted by all things Russian, particularly her butler (Charles Boyer), as well as a pair of wolfhounds who replace her yapping Pekinese. In FOOLS FOR SCANDAL, she plays a manically gossipy friend of the heroine, who receives a witheringly funny putdown from Lombard: “Do get some rest, dear. You look SO tired!”
with matinee idol, Ivor Novello, of whom Noel Coward once said, “The two most beautiful things in the world are Ivor’s profile and my mind.”
Hitchcock was particularly fond of her, casting her in DOWNHILL (1927), as well as SUSPICION (1941). She crowned her stage career with a definitive Lady Bracknell in the 1968 revival of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, which had a nine-month ssold-out run, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, with Pauline Collins, Daniel Massey, Helen Weir, Robert Eddison and Dame Flora Robson.
Her brother was actor/boxer Desmond Jeans and her sister was Ursula Jeans, who delightfully sand “Twentieth Century Blues” in the 1933 film of Coward’s CAVALCADE, and who married my current favrotie actor, the enytrancingly voiced Roger Livesy.
Jeans’ private life was at times stormy. She was the first of the six wives of Claude Rains, who separated from her three times from 1913-15, finally filing for divorce when she miscarried the baby of actor Gilbert Wakefield (whom she subsequently married), during an adulterous affair.