Scandalizing his genteel English family, a dapper son of privilege marries an upstart American divorcée. When Edward VIII brought Wallas Simpson home to Buckingham Palace in 1936, he was reenacting the plot of a play written by Noel Coward in 1926. In Easy Virtue’s opening sequence, John Whittaker (Barnes) returns to the sumptuous country estate that his people have lorded over for seven generations. He is accompanied by his ravishingly beautiful new bride, Larita (Biel), a racecar driver John met and wooed in Monaco. “What am I supposed to do with this bauble of a woman?” asks his mother, Veronica, shocked to discover not only that she is suddenly a mother-in-law but that her darling only son has brought home a “floozie” from Detroit who does not play tennis, ride horses, or hunt foxes. Her two daughters — as snooty as Cinderella’s sisters, or Goneril and Regan — are equally appalled by the brash interloper, especially after she inadvertently kills the Whittakers’ Chihuahua by sitting on him.
Sparked by Coward’s droll dialogue, the first half-hour of Easy Virtue proceeds as a comedy of bad manners. “I don’t feel like smiling,” complains John’s older sister, Marion. “You’re English, my dear,” replies her father. “Fake it.” Later, mocking another national stereotype, Coward has John complain to his vivacious young wife: “You’re so loud.” Her terse response: “Of course — I’m an American.” The film inverts the formula of innocents abroad familiar to readers of Mark Twain and Henry James; here it is the American visitor who, in her preferences in painting, literature, and food, proves more sophisticated than her provincial English hosts.
This is the second screen version of Easy Virtue, but not even Alfred Hitchcock, the unlikely first director, could, in 1928, overcome the handicap of filming a Noel Coward play as a silent film. In his talkie version, director Stephan Elliott deploys witty words, bouncy music, and opulent sets and costumes to mock the smug conceit of haughty idlers who judge working for a living and fluency in French as evidence of bad breeding.
The film takes a turn for the bitter when we learn a few more things about Larita beyond her fondness for fast cars, French novels, and John Whittaker. Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance as Veronica Whittaker is nuanced enough to make her something more than just a matriarchal monster who bullies the servants, but it is Colin Firth’s role as her husband, Colonel Jack Whittaker, a Hemingway character trapped in a Victorian time warp, that lifts the proceedings above the level of divertissement. Jack returned alone of all his mates from the slaughter of the Great War, and he is profoundly alienated from the fripperies that engage his wife and daughters. “Apparently, I’m of the romantic lost generation,” Jack, whose grunginess belies a fine eye for irony, tells Larita, who is charged by Veronica with “easy virtue.” Though it might seem like a lighthearted romp, this carefully wrought film is proof that virtue ain’t easy.