The new film by Stephan Elliott (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is adapted from an early Noël Coward drama, but Elliott has cut most of Coward's repartee and pasted in his own dialogue, including this exchange on a tennis court. "Nice backhand," pipes up one bright young thing. "Was that a backhanded compliment?" quips the other. If only Noël could have written zingers like that, eh?
Easy Virtue stars an uncharismatic Jessica Biel (right) as an American motor-racing ace who gets married to an English aristocrat, Prince Caspian's Ben Barnes. The newlyweds visit his stately home so that Biel can meet Barnes's disapproving mother, Kristin Scott Thomas, his amused father, Colin Firth, and his undecided sisters, Kimberly Nixon and Katherine Parkinson. A battle of wills commences between the women, a battle entailing a knickerless can-can, a dog being fatally sat on, and a Jazz Age arrangement of "Sex Bomb" on the soundtrack – and I don't suppose any of those figured in Coward's play, either.
The irony is that every one of Elliott's straining efforts to turn Easy Virtue into a zany, risqué farce only makes it seems stuffier and starchier. The film's only virtue is that the viewer empathises with Biel, as she itches to leave the uniformly detestable Brits behind. And if that's a backhanded compliment, it's the only kind Easy Virtue is likely to get.
For a period comedy with far more sparkle, seek out OSS 117: Cairo – Nest of Spies, even if its title makes Quantum of Solace sound pithy. A French spy spoof set in 1955, it stars Jean Dujardin – imagine a Gallic Steve Coogan – as a Brylcreemed secret agent who doesn't let his rank stupidity dent his self-confidence. He's sent to Egypt with orders to "make the Middle East safe". "No problem," he replies, and soon he's irritating his beautiful Egyptian secretary, Bérénice Bejo, by assaulting muezzins.
OSS 117 is a real treat. With the comedy played almost straight, it's comparable to the best of the Pink Panther films, and it's much smarter than Steve Carell's Get Smart. It's more fun than that film with Quantum in the title too. Cineastes will appreciate how it re-creates the look of 1950s cinema. Politically inclined viewers will approve of its satire of Western foreign policy. Everyone else will be rolling in the aisles as the hero and villain throw live chickens at each other.