Saturday, June 6, 2009

Easy Virtue, Noel Coward

Posted by lea at 2:05 PM
Easy Virtue is an enjoyable play with more than one layer. On the surface, the story of a brazen, older woman-of-the-world marrying the eldest son of a genteel country family and being thrust into their world is a plot ripe with explosive possibilities. On another level, Coward uses the plot to unveil the snobby culture of the English upper crust. This theme is well-worn now, but in Coward's day I can imagine that his depiction of the snobby Mrs Whittaker and her daughters - self-righteous Marion and naiive and vindictive Hilda - would have been quite a rude look in the mirror for the starched English audience.

The 2008 movie explores the first layer well, creating rich comic moments exaggerated by the fact that the temptress is American, rather than Coward's original English socialite. The chemistry between Jessica Biel's carefree brazen American intruder and stern-faced matriarch Kristin Scott-Thomas rescues the movie from descending into farce, even though the comedy turns slapstick at times.

It's a shame that Coward doesn't explore this further, as this entire period seems to fall into the crevice of the three months that pass between Act I and Act II. However it's in the second layer that Coward's dialogue really shines, managing to depict the adulterous and laconic father (the Colonel) as the most genuine and sympathetic member of the family. The two most morally corrupt characters in the play (Larita and the Colonel) in fact become Coward's heroes for their lack of hypocrisy and largeness of mind, which Larita in particular shows at the end in relinquishing what is most dear to her.

Re-reading this review so far, I notice that I haven't even mentioned the son John, whom Larita falls in love with and marries. I think that's actually part of Coward's design - John is practically an absent character known more to the audience from being spoken of than for his own presence, but he's an important character because it's through his very absence that Coward poignantly shows the damaging effect of pressure and disappointed expectation on young love.

Easy Virtue in both its forms is very enjoyable, but the ending of the movie, which diverges a little from the play, is rather perplexing. Overall a good read and enjoyable watch.

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