Easy Virtue

(2009) *** Pg-13
97 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Stephan Elliott. Cast: Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Kris Marshall.

/content/films/3569/1.jpgTaking on the work of a signature writer—especially one who has been dead for decades—is always a daunting proposition, and filmmakers often find themselves walking on eggshells to please the author's devotees. But director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is not one to tread lightly. To some degree, he takes the opposite tack in adapting Noel Coward's 1924 play Easy Virtue, with pleasingly irreverent results.

Elliott amplifies the wit of Coward's melodrama—previously adapted to film in the silent era by Alfred Hitchcock—and winningly weds the play to a modern sensibility. The approach is hardly a pointless stunt, since Coward was, at the time, challenging upper-crust conservatism with progressive social politics. Reasoning that we now live in a time in which Coward's hopes have largely been achieved, Elliott bridges the gap by maintaining the 1920s setting but cheekily infusing modern touches, such as modern pop music done up in a '20s style (hence, we get jazz-age versions of "Car Wash" and "Sexbomb" alongside standards like Cole Porter's "You're the Top" and "Let's Misbehave"). An even more notable flourish is Elliott allowing the characters occasionally to break into these songs, which may be a dealbreaker for Coward enthusiasts. Still, the choice by Elliott and co-screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins to layer Coward's talent for droll one-liners onto this relatively serious three-act drama seems the right one.

Easy Virtue is the story of young newlyweds Larita (Jessica Biel) and John (Ben Barnes), who are threatened by the poisonous attitude of the groom's ice-queen mother Veronica (played to the hilt by Kristin Scott Thomas). American race-car driver Larita has no use for the stuffy life represented by the well-appointed country estate that Veronica shares with her dissolute, layabout husband, the alcoholic WWI vet Major Jim Whittaker (a delightful Colin Firth). Hijinks ensue as modern-woman Larita labors to play nice but utterly fails to fit in to Veronica's rigid pre-feminist mold. Not everyone shares Veronica's sentiments, and Coward has a dilly of a surprise in store for the matriarch, her spineless son, and the audience. Coward enthusiasts shouldn't be too concerned: Elliott is reasonably respectful to his source, and doesn't go overboard. The result is a period piece that may play well with those who hate period pieces.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 9/15/2009

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Easy Virtue gets a terrific transfer on Blu-ray, one that entirely serves the original visual scheme of Stephan Elliott and cinematographer Martin Kenzie. It's a stylized image in its color palette (which results in "off" flesh tones), but the transfer handles it well, delivering both film-like light grain and extraordinary detail for a picture with considerable texture and depth. The lossless Dolby TrueHD surround sound excels in all areas: clear dialogue reproduction, crisp ambient effects, and full-bodied music.

Sony assembles a nice package of extras here, beginning with a commentary with director Stephan Elliott & writer Sheridan Jobbins. The cheery chat concentrates on the approach to Coward's material (and its history), but also covers the customary bases of production, including the efforts of the cast.

Also on hand are four "Deleted Scenes" (4:51, SD), a "Blooper Reel" (8:50, SD), and the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:01, HD). A featurette covers the "New York Premiere" (6:12, SD), including red-carpet interviews with Jessica Biel, Elliott, Jobbins, Ben Barnes, and Colin Firth. The disc also provides BD-Live access to additional online content.

Easy Virtue is well worth a look, and there's no better way to see it than in Blu-ray high definition.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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