'Virtue,' Old And New: At Least The Silent's Golden

Ben Barnes and Jessica Biel i i

Hunting high and low: John (Ben Barnes) and Larita (Jessica Biel) are unlikely newlyweds in the comedy Easy Virtue. Giles Keyte/Sony Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Giles Keyte/Sony Classics
Ben Barnes and Jessica Biel

Hunting high and low: John (Ben Barnes) and Larita (Jessica Biel) are unlikely newlyweds in the comedy Easy Virtue.

Giles Keyte/Sony Classics

Easy Virtue

  • Director: Stephan Elliott
  • Genre: Period Comedy
  • Running Time: 93 minutes

Rated PG-13: Sexual content, brief partial nudity and smoking throughout.

With: Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes

Kristin Scott Thomas in 'Easy Virtue' i i

Apron string-ups: Kristin Scott Thomas makes one overbearing mother in Stephan Elliott's version of the story, originally a Noel Coward stage play. hide caption

itoggle caption
Kristin Scott Thomas in 'Easy Virtue'

Apron string-ups: Kristin Scott Thomas makes one overbearing mother in Stephan Elliott's version of the story, originally a Noel Coward stage play.

Isabel Jeans stretches upon awakening in 'Easy Virtue' i i

Silent Coward, a stretch? Isabel Jeans starred in the 1928 version of Easy Virtue — a silent-movie melodrama, not a comedy, directed by a young Alfred Hitchcock. Kobal Collection hide caption

itoggle caption Kobal Collection
Isabel Jeans stretches upon awakening in 'Easy Virtue'

Silent Coward, a stretch? Isabel Jeans starred in the 1928 version of Easy Virtue — a silent-movie melodrama, not a comedy, directed by a young Alfred Hitchcock.

Kobal Collection

Easy Virtue has its virtues, but they're not realized as persuasively as they might be in Stephan Elliott's new film adaptation.

This is, after all, an upper-crusty Noel Coward opus in which wealthy sophisticates crack wise about marriage, life and really important things like tennis — which might sound like an odd fit for the director of the Australian drag comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. (Though it's not nearly as odd as the fit a British studio came up with for a 1920s take on Easy Virtue, about which more in a moment.)

But the problem isn't a mismatch behind the camera, so much as one out front. There is supposed to be some distance between the American-divorcee main character, whose past gives the play its title, and the British family she marries into. But that distance probably shouldn't include acting styles.

Jessica (I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry) Biel seems to see Larita, a glamorous American race-car driver who is keeping a scandalous secret from her much younger husband, as a fish-out-of-water sitcom character. Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian) makes her new hubby a handsome but characterless Masterpiece Theatre twit, still very much under the influence of a manipulative mother, whom Kristin Scott Thomas interprets in hysterical Gosford Park overdrive.

Once everybody's together at the family's stately home after the wedding, hijinks ensue. Jinks both high and low, actually — many of them pretty forced. In fact, amid the prettily shot, luxuriously appointed nonsense, only Colin Firth's dyspeptic, disengaged lord of the manor emerges with his dignity intact.

But the upside of a Coward-powered letdown is that I had plenty of time to contemplate one particularly improbable fact about Easy Virtue: that it had a previous incarnation on film.

As, of all things, a silent picture.

Now, with a Noel Coward play, the dialogue and its brittle, upper-crust delivery count for everything, so that's more than slightly startling. Even more so is the director chosen for the project: a British tyro, born the same year as Coward, by the name of Alfred Hitchcock.

How does that early version compare to Elliott's? Well, for one thing, it's pure melodrama, not comedy. Larita's scandalous past, barely mentioned in the new film or the play, takes up nearly a quarter of the silent picture's running time. Her drunken first husband, adultery, a shooting, a divorce trial, all are laid out in elaborate detail, and with touches of the Hitchcock that audiences would later learn to love for his wry sense of humor.

The first shot in the film appears to be a tennis ball, for instance, until it moves. Turns out it's the top of a British barrister's fuzzy wig.

A few moments later, the leading lady is introduced as little more than an onscreen blur, only coming into focus when the judge puts on his glasses. Hitchcock the master craftsman is already at work.

But consider his dilemma. He's adapting a famously witty writer, but he can barely use any of Noel Coward's words — it's a silent movie. Only one verbal joke remains from the original play, in fact. On a title card, John's battleaxe of a mother baits Larita with a question:

"Have you had as many lovers as they say?" she asks.

"Of course not," replies Larita, ever classy. "Hardly any of them actually loved me." Vintage Noel Coward, that.

Coward was mocking the smugness of the landed gentry, of course, and Hitchcock finds many ways to get that across. Also their essential silliness: Larita's hubby is what the Brits might call a "wanker," and Hitch finds a surprisingly racy way to turn that joke into a visual one during a balcony scene on the French Riviera.

But the director treats the story throughout as the melodrama it always was underneath — the tale of a hypocritical family and a lady with a past who knows more about morality than they do.

Because Hitchcock wasn't making a comedy, the rhythms he adopts are stately. Almost nothing in his silent version of Easy Virtue happens quickly, but one thing does. If you rent it, keep an eye out during the tennis scene for a slightly bulky gentleman with a walking stick, striding away from the camera and through a gate.

You never see his face, but if you've seen any of Hitchcock's other movies, you'll recognize a very early instance of what was to become a signature moment: a discreet nod to the audience from a cinematic showman who was then an unformed but already very confident 28-year-old.

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