Alfred Hitchcock directed a silent version of the Noel Coward play Easy Virtue back in 1927, which is sort of amusing given that Coward's works are known for their verbal wit and audio elegance -- factors that hardly benefit from the employment of title cards. Director Stephan Elliott's new version finds the characters speaking loud and clear, only what's being heard isn't always unfiltered Coward. Elliott has poked and prodded the original source material, resulting in a picture that suffers from a clear identity crisis.
Set in the 1920s, the film stars Jessica Biel as Larita, an American race car driver who has just married John Whitaker (Ben Barnes, Narnia's Prince Caspian), a dashing young Brit who's never had to work a day in his life. Larita travels to his English estate to meet his family, and that's when the familial fireworks begin. John's snooty mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) loathes Larita before she even meets her, and his two sisters (Kimberly Nixon and Katherine Parkinson) eventually follow suit. Only John's dad (Colin Firth), a sarcastic layabout still shell-shocked from his experience during the Great War, has Larita's back; even her husband seems to waver when caught in the middle, a tentativeness that forces the independent-minded bride to assess the durability of her marriage.
Easy Virtue is a charming period piece that benefits from several prickly scenes as well as fine acting by the British thespians -- I especially enjoyed Kris Marshall as the all-seeing butler who takes everything in stride. But it's Elliott's attempts at modernizing the material that end up sabotaging the project. Biel is crucially miscast in the central role -- she's never believable in this '20s setting in a way that, say, Amy Adams or Rachel McAdams might have been. And while the use of contemporary music in period pieces has worked in the past (Moulin Rouge, A Knight's Tale), Elliott's drafting of newer tunes ("Car Wash," "Sex Bomb") among vintage hits (by Coward and Cole Porter, among others) feels tentative and never gels with the rest of the soundtrack. In the end, the frothy Easy Virtue is easy to like but hard to wholly recommend.