At its best, Easy Virtue is a fun little movie. I say this, but it only reaches this level for about 20 minutes of its 96-minute running time. That’s too bad, because when it’s right, it’s quite good. The tedium surrounding this short period is what makes for a bit of a drag. However, it can also be said that it never gets bad enough to stop being watchable, which I suppose is some sort of praise.
The film begins with style, and continues that trend throughout. We learn that an American race car driver, Larita (Jessica Biel), has recently married an Englishman, John (Ben Barnes), who lives in a mansion in the countryside. This is the 1920s, so such a thing wasn’t commonplace. He’s a wealthy man who has enjoyed an easy life, while she is the opposite. The dichotomy between these two types of lives — and by extension, the cultures of Americans and Brits — is one of the driving forces of the film. John’s family doesn’t approve of his marriage to Larita, so she has to try to fit in, even though she vehemently disagrees with many of their practices. The back-and-forth exchanges are some of the film’s highlights.
This accounts for both exchanges of dialogue and actions. The best stretch of Easy Virtue involves Larita’s rebellion in the face of John’s mother, Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is the most outspoken member of her cynics. One initially assumes that it’s jealousy which fuels her disdain for John’s new wife — the overbearing, can’t-live-without-her-son, type of mother is a well-established trope — but we later learn the character is deeper than that.
The tone of the movie is clearly comedic, although it’s a slightly witty comedy that requires a bit more thought than one might initially think. There’s a social criticism aspect, too, which treats the crude foreigner, Larita, as an invader to an old-fashioned way of life. And yet there are some scenes played completely for laughs, and a warm, light approach to a few specific moments that seem out of place. It’s inconsistent, and while this is very clearly intentional, I couldn’t see a specific reason for that decision.
Perhaps it’s a case of the play, upon which Easy Virtue is based — although there are many differences in the two products — having the same sort of problems. It was written in 1924, and was made into an earlier film by Alfred Hitchcock just four years later. Until this version, it has remained unfilmed since the Hitchcock version. If the basic story sounds interesting to you, check out the earlier film before this one, just for a bit of history. It will also be worth seeing because there’s no retrospect to taint the vision; it came out so soon after the play, and was set during the time it was created, that cynicism could not taint it.
That’s not to say that I think Easy Virtue is necessarily cynical, but there’s an edge to it that you won’t find in the 1928 picture. The dialogue is sharp, the performances are jaded, and there’s a darkness to it that’s hidden by its overall comedic tones. Take Victoria’s quiet husband (Colin Firth), who seems dead inside. Why? When the reveal comes it’s in no way funny. The way Larita makes him light up balances this out.
Easy Virtue is a relatively fast-paced film, which might surprise you, especially once you’re made aware of the fact that it’s a period piece set in the 1920s. These films are often slow burns, but Easy Virtue burns through its material quickly, ensuring it never lingers and never gets boring. Even when it’s not successful, it moves on fast enough that the temptation to stop watching never crops up.
Where does Easy Virtue falter? Well, there’s a whole lot of tedium in the middle, when all we get is a bunch of sitting around and talking about how much they dislike one another. The death of a dog is played for laughs, and the scene in which it is killed seems to go on forever and simply doesn’t work. An emotional climax should have put the end to a subplot, but it rears back up to close out the film, even though it really didn’t need to. Easy Virtue is mostly a success and only misses in small sections.
It is not, however, completely compelling. I’m not entirely sure what it is about Easy Virtue, because while it remains watchable throughout and doesn’t misstep very often, it’s not something that I feel the need to recommend. Everyone has watched films like these before, right? The ones that don’t do much wrong, but they just aren’t too hot about regardless? That’s how I feel with Easy Virtue. I thought it was a good film but I don’t know how much I, or anyone else, will get out of it.
Easy Virtue is a good film that I don’t really want to recommend. It was a well-paced and sharply written film with good acting, precise and interesting cinematography, and enough humor to keep you laughing, assuming you’re able to put in a little bit of work to “get” it. And yet, save for about 20 minutes of its running time, I found myself ambivalent to the whole experience. I didn’t dislike it, and I never thought about doing something else, but it just wasn’t doing anything for me.