A campy period drama prone to spats of singing and lavish costume in lieu of consistent style, Easy Virtue, based on Neil Coward’s 1928 play of the same title, is set in the upper-crust English society of the roaring twenties. An American racecar driver, Larita (Jessica Biel), marries a younger Englishman from old money, who takes her home to his family’s castle-sized cottage. A typical fish-out-of-water story ensues as the women of the household peck at Larita’s American brash and independence. Through turns preposterous and predictable (the food is terrible!), the film makes mockery of the Victorian standards of high-society England on the cusp of modernization.
At the head of this dying regime is Larita’s stony mother-in-law, Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas). The series of bitch-slaps the two women carry out — the bulk of the film’s plot — is less than thrilling, and gussied up with musical sequences and dizzying camera spins. Once the music stops, however, more serious scenes fail to find their proper footing. Director Stephan Elliot seems to be beckoning to Baz Luhrman for inspiration, yet the screenplay is so facile as to make Easy Virtue better fit for children. Characters are mere caricatures, like the Barbie-esque heroine (how’d she become a racecar champ?), her happy-go-lucky husband, his two meddling sisters, and Great War-torn father (Colin Firth), who becomes one of Larita’s only allies on the estate (the others being “the help”). Possibly the only actor to rise from her silhouette is Scott Thomas, whose deep-set eyes instill sympathy and humanity in every role she assays. Even when shrilling to her lost Chihuahua (accidentally sat on by Larita), Scott Thomas gives skittishness a graceful face. Losing the dog might seem childish pity to the others in the film, but it’s emblematic of her slipping control over her family, estate and culture. We’re meant to hate her, but it’s hard to see what else there is to root for.