A highbrow festival like Toronto doesn't offer many opportunities to laugh, and I was grateful for this one. Easy Virtue, an adaptation of an early Noël Coward play, is a droll and witty delight, a superb showcase for its cast, and a return to fine form for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert director Stephan Elliott, who last turned in the unsettling but incomprehensible Eye of the Beholder nearly 10 years ago. Where most TIFF films seemed to glower at me from the screen, this one winked and smiled.
Noël Coward may seem a strange choice for Elliott, whose films have favored the bizarre and the obscure. I don't know what attracted the filmmaker to this project, but I'm glad that something did. The material may seem almost purely verbal, all clever turns of phrase and sardonic interjections (what Americans think of as "Britishness"), but Elliott is constantly concerned with how the movie looks and sounds. Fittingly, he manages to give it a curious, otherworldly feel. This is most pronounced in the opening sequence, which marries choppy black-and-white footage, odd angles, and a jazzy soundtrack to introduce us to the characters and transport us to a universe that is ever so slightly off-kilter. It's a welcome recognition that these hyper-literate, impeccably constructed old comedies – Coward, Wilde, etc. – don't take place in a world quite like ours.
The characters we meet in the haunting opening are Larita Huntington (Jessica Biel), America's first female racecar driver, and John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), heir to the fortune of an aristocratic British family. John meets Larita on his world travels (apparently par for the course for young male British aristocrats) and up and marries her, to the horror of his ultra-traditional mother Veronica (Kristin Scott Thomas). The rest of the film is dedicated to the battle that ensues when John brings Larita to his family's obscenely opulent castle to live, at least for a while, with mom and his two unmarried sisters (Kimberley Nixon and Katherine Parkinson). Veronica is having none of John and Larita's plan to ditch the estate and move to London, and intends to scuttle it by any means necessary. Also there, albeit barely, is John's bored father (Colin Firth), who spends most of his time taking sarcastic swipes at his uptight wife.
Easy Virtue makes no bones about what it wants us to think about the players in this increasingly fever-pitched comedy of manners. Larita is the hero of the story, thrown to the wolves; John's father is a sympathetic but ineffectual kindred spirit; John himself is well-intentioned but trapped by his heritage and his manipulative mother; Veronica is a coldhearted harridan blinded by her dedication to status and image (though the film makes a few half-hearted attempts to humanize her). While this approach may sacrifice some depth and ambiguity, it actually makes the comedy more delicious: we know whom to root for, and don't have to feel bad about it.
The comedy runs the gamut from quintessentially British dry humor ("I don't feel like smiling," pouts one of John's sisters; "You're English dear, fake it," replies Veronica) to high-spirited slapstick. The film's not staid, as you might expect from the setting; in fact, it's often downright goofy, as exemplified by the character of the unflappable butler (Kris Marshall) and the cruel fate of the family dog. It's gratifyingly loose, and unpredictable moment-to-moment. And it's very funny.
The cast proved to be a wonder, despite being filled with actors I've never much liked. Kristin Scott Thomas effortlessly molds into a role that couldn't be more different than the one she played in her other TIFF entry, I've Loved You So Long. Colin Firth unveils the razor-sharp comic timing that he's apparently been hiding from us for two decades. Jessica Biel gives easily the best performance of her career as the stubborn, complex Larita. And I don't know what Andrew Adamson did to Ben Barnes to make him so boring and charmless in Prince Caspian, but on the strength of Easy Virtue, I'm guessing it was surgical.
The film's most remarkable feature, though, may be how visually interesting Stephan Elliott manages to keep it. He never returns to the borderline creepy vision of the first couple minutes, but he never settles into a typically undistinctive period piece rhythm either. He likes bright colors, sharp angles, mirrors and reflections; he keeps you guessing. Festivalgoers may be tempted to call Easy Virtue a "guilty pleasure," but there's nothing to feel guilty about. It's as accomplished as it is lightweight.