Monday, 7 March 2011

Easy Virtue

Lowdown: An American woman challenges the traditions of an aristocratic English family.
The Brits have have been in love with the concept of American troublemakers coming in to ruin or invigorate their traditional life since long before the days of Dempsey and Makepeace. Easy Virtue (2008) is yet another manifestation of this same fetish, one that we rented because my dear friend Colin Firth was in the news again, Oscars and all.
Firth is not in the center of the action at Easy Virtue, though. Set in the 1920s, we follow an independent American woman (Jessica Biel) who had just won the Monaco Grand Prix but had her victory disqualified on the merits of her sex. She falls in love and marries the male heir of British aristocracy (Ben Barnes) who takes her to his home to meet the family. Meet them she does, with all the pomp the family can muster as we meet the mother hell bent on her traditional ways and terribly annoyed with the trans Atlantic invasion(Kristin Scott Thomas), the father who never really came back from the Great War (our Firth), and the two jealous sisters (including Katherine Parkinson of IT Crowd fame). You can sort of see what's coming up next: a battle of cultures, with the progressive Biel fighting off the traditional Thomas. As we go about, more and more secrets are revealed about our English family and about our American transgressor and we learn no one's perfect. At the end of the day it is those that can live with one another's dark side that make it through.
The problem with Easy Virtue is that there's not much virtue to it. It feels much more like a play than a film (a notion confirmed by the end credits); it's all a actors' game of dialog and duels of wit rather than a film with a plot that's progressing along. Most of the wit was wasted on me: I felt bored and I was annoyed by the predictability. I was saved by the terrific acting exhibited all around (but especially from Thomas and Firth) and by a soundtrack featuring "The Easy Virtue Orchestra" performing contemporary hits in early 20th century style. I'll put it this way: the film was worth renting just for hearing Tom Jones' Sex Bomb sang as if from a 78 record.
Notable scenes: The film tries to create comic moments to carry its burden with, but it does so too predictably. The scene in which Biel sits on Thomas' favorite puppy has been copied from who knows how many before, and the scene in which the younger daughter dances the Can-can underwear-less feels like it came straight from Benny Hill.
Technical assessment: I have mixed feelings about this Blu-ray. The picture side handles the challenging dark interior scenes very well and the soundtrack is nice even though it is not allowed to take reign over the surround channels. However, dialog is quite unintelligible for lengthy periods, truly challenging my attention as I was trying to understand what the actors are mumbling about. Usually this is not an issue because I use the subtitles, but for some odd reason the producers of this Easy Virtue Blu-ray chose not to include such an essential feature. What a shame.
Overall: Ultimately, Easy Virtue is wasted potential. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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