Rehashed Coward dies a thousand deaths
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