Easy Virtue is a 2008 British romcom based on the play by Noel Coward of the same name. The play was formerly made into a silent movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928. This latest adaptation is directed by Stephan Elliott, and written by both the director and Sheridan Jobbins. It stars Ben Barnes, Jessica Biel, Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas. The score contains several of Coward songs and music which evokes the jazz age, some of which are partially sung by the cast.
Easy Virtue is a social comedy in which an American widow, the glamorous Larita (Jessica Biel), spontaneously marries a young Brit, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), in the south of France. When they come back to England to meet his parents, his mother forms a strong disliking to the new daughter-in-law, while Jim, his father, finds in her a kindred spirit. Family tensions escalate.
Coward's play was put to the screen by Stephan Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins but barely any features of the original play remain with the exception of the main characters. Even they do not much resemble Coward's cast.
In his autobiography, Present Indicative, published in 1937, Coward claims his object in the play is "to compare the declasse woman of to-day with the more flamboyant demi-mondaine of the 1890s." He states, "The line that was intended to establish the play on a basis of comedy rather than tragedy, comes at the end of the second act when Larita, the heroine, irritated beyond endurance by the smug attitude of her 'in-laws', argues them out of the room."
Although the play was produced as a silent film in 1928 directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Isabel Jeans and Franklin Dyall, this film does not get a mention in Coward's autobiography. The 2008 version of the film is favourably reviewed by the Noël Coward Society.
Colm Andrew of the Manx Independent offered the film a 7/10 rating and said it was "a frothy affair but the source material is good - the script is workmanlike but at least it doesn't try to be clever and the quality of the acting makes sure the lines resonate soundly". Some critics felt that the movie’s insistent jazz-age lilt is completely at odds with a 1920s play that attacks the hypocrisy, smugness and values of the English landed gentry during the interwar period – unlike other films of that period such as Atonement. The screenplay includes scattered Coward bons mots, but the humour doesn’t come as thick or as fast as in his later plays.
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes offers the film a score of 53% based on 120 reviews. Metacritic gives it a score of 58% based on reviews from 28 critics.
Broadsheet and national British reviews were generally mixed or negative. Film Four's praised the casting of Biel and stated that, though Firth's and Thomas's casting was "hardly radical thinking, both offer something different from their previous period work".
Philip French of the Observer wrote that the film was "well enough designed and photographed, but witless, anachronistic, cloth-eared, lacking in both style and period sense", while Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian attacked its script for "undermin[ing] the material by slipping arch modern phrases and gags into everyone's mouths".
The critic of The Times awarded it only one star out of five, whilst Nicholas Barber of the Independent wrote that "every one of Elliott's straining efforts to turn Easy Virtue into a zany, risqué farce only makes it seems stuffier and starchier". Stella Papamichael of digital spy stated that British jazz renditions of 'Car Wash' and 'Sex Bomb' used in the film were very distracting.