Re­hashed Cow­ard dies a thou­sand deaths

Kerrie Mur­phy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

IT has been a long time be­tween drinks for Aus­tralian di­rec­tor Stephan El­liott. His 1994 break­through, The Ad­ven­tures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert , is one of our 10 biggest­gross­ing films, but his two sub­se­quent movies, Wel­come to Woop Woop and Eye of the Be­holder , barely re­ceived no­tice.

His lat­est, , based on a 1927 play by Noel Cow­ard, is an ad­ven­ture in film­mak­ing where some­times the risks pay off but more of­ten they don’t.

It fo­cuses on the up­per-class Whit­taker fam­ily, which is thrown into chaos when way­ward son John ( Ben Barnes) re­turns to the coun­try es­tate from the south of France with a wife. Not only did John have a per­fectly ac­cept­able po­ten­tial spouse next door, but his wife, Larita, is ( gasp!) older, ( gasp!) a racing-car driver, and ( gasp!) an Amer­i­can: she cov­ers the gamut of gasp-in­duc­ing at­tributes, in fact.

Sti­fled by the Whit­tak­ers’ op­pres­sively gen­teel world, Larita ( Jes­sica Biel) tries to en­dear her­self to the fam­ily but, fail­ing that, be­comes en­gaged in a tug-of-war with the house ma­tri­arch, Mrs Whit­taker ( Kristin Scott Thomas), over the in­creas­ingly in­sipid John.

Easy Virtue wasn’t Cow­ard’s best work (‘‘ spotty’’ was the con­tem­po­rary ver­dict of The New York Times ) and the screen­play by El­liott and Sheri­dan Job­bins up­dates the di­a­logue, to no ob­vi­ous gain. Every­one speaks in droll, Cowardesque tones, but the words that come out strug­gle to match his wit.

Had El­liott made a stan­dard pe­riod romp, this could have been an en­joy­able so­cial com­edy, some­thing you could watch any Sun­day on ABC1. Af­ter all, Colin Firth plays Mr Whit­taker and the man can do heavy lift­ing in a cos­tume.

But El­liott’s tweaks are a mixed bag. Turn­ing Mr Whit­taker, the fam­ily mem­ber most in tune with Larita, into a man bro­ken by the war is an in­ter­est­ing idea and pro­vides a coun­ter­weight to Firth’s more fa­mil­iar char­ac­ters in pe­riod cos­tume. It’s a shame Mr Whit­taker wasn’t a meatier role.

Less suc­cess­ful are the film’s anachro­nisms. At one point, Larita is de­scribed as a cougar, a de­cid­edly 21st-cen­tury term for a woman who dates younger men.

In this con­text it is jar­ring, as is the sound­track, with its mix of Cow­ard and Cole Porter tunes and pe­riod-jazz re­work­ings of songs such as Tom Jones’s Sex Bomb.

There are mo­ments of fun. He is overused, but Kris Mar­shall’s drunken, con­temp­tu­ous but­ler brings the most laughs. Scott Thomas, as a bit­ter woman so rigid she ap­pears grey, does a ter­rific job, as you would ex­pect. And Cran­ford ’ s Kim­ber­ley Nixon, who plays the youngest Whit­taker and has al­ready shone in sup­port­ing roles in pedes­trian movies such as Wild Child , seems des­tined for big­ger things.

Biel, best known for the TV show 7th Heaven , was a sur­prise choice for Larita, but she holds her own with Firth, with whom she has great chem­istry, and Scott Thomas. Her Larita is such a fun, in­ter­est­ing woman that her re­la­tion­ship with the weak John barely con­vinces. Larita is forced to snatch mo­ments of joy from the gen­eral drea­ri­ness around her. View­ers of Easy Virtue may em­pathise.

* * * EL­LIOT’S Priscilla wasn’t the only film in­ject­ing life into Aus­tralian cin­ema in 1994. P. J. Ho­gan’s Muriel’s Wed­ding , a film much darker than it is given credit for, also cre­ated a sen­sa­tion.

Ho­gan has fared slightly bet­ter than El­liott in Hol­ly­wood: his frothy Ju­lia Roberts rom­com My

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