WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Based on Noel Coward’s 1928 play and set in that period Easy Virtue is about John Whittaker a young Englishman who falls madly in love with a flamboyant American woman named Larita whom he immediately marries and brings home to meet his stuffy all-airs English family. What ensues is a battle of wits that turns to war between the visiting yank and her new mother-in-law who is determined to prove to her son that he has made an egregious mistake.
WHO’S IN IT?
Jessica Biel takes a flying thespic leap and holds her own in the middle of a sterling cast of fine British talent as Larita the feisty young wife of a naïve young man who has fallen head-over-heels in love with her and expects his stuffy upper-crust family to fall in line. Biel is a delight as this thoroughly modern miss and shows she can adapt to the witty rhythms of Noel Coward’s rapid-fire repartee with the best of ‘em. And the best of ‘em includes the wonderfully talented and woefully underrated Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) as the doubting Mrs. Whittaker who doesn’t quite welcome the American intruder with open arms. Thomas’ performance is reminiscent of the haughty English societal roles she began her career with but she adds a dollop of vinegar to this one and appropriately glams down for full effect. Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) is at once smitten and perplexed as the impressionable new groom while the ever-reliable and appealing Colin Firth steals it all as his cynical and dour father the only other family member who sees the spark in Larita.
Shot entirely in some stunning stately mansions in the environs around Berkshire and Cambridgeshire Easy Virtue expertly captures the flavor of a sophisticated late-'20s British romp. The fresh and inspired casting of Biel in her first English foray should also find contemporary audiences responding. Although he occasionally opens things up a bit (including a very funny fox hunt) director Stephen Elliott wisely lets his cast take center stage with Coward’s constant zingers and spicy dialogue.
There’s nothing really new here that will make you go “Wow.” Though it’s all “been there seen that ” Easy Virtue is still done with verve and style. It’s a hoot for those who miss this kind of theatrical experience on the big screen.
When the others have retired to the patio Biel’s character accidentally sits on Mrs. Whittaker’s prized little pooch sadly squashing the poor little bugger to death. Her subsequent Lucy-esque attempts to cover up the crime are slapstick silly fun giving Biel the opportunity to display the kind of comic chops she didn’t get to show opposite Adam Sandler and Kevin James in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Netflix. The widescreen cinematography is nice to look at but this little trifle will play just fine at your own estate.
Wracked by guilt over what she believes is her responsibility for the tragic death of her mother -- and running away from a distant father (Paul Bettany) -- 14 year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) takes off with her caretaker Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) and heads to the South Carolina home of the Boatwright sisters a place that holds many memories of her own mother’s childhood. She is immediately taken under their wing and bonds with August (Queen Latifah) the family matriarch who runs the enterprising bee farm on the property and teaches Lily the ways of the honey. There’s also the spirited June (Alicia Keys) a music teacher resisting the marriage proposals of the well-intentioned Neil (Nate Parker) and fragile and childlike May (Sophie Okonedo). In forging new relationships with these women a whole new world of self-esteem is slowly opened for Lily. For Dakota Fanning her performance in Bees marks a turning point into a new phase of her already impressive career and in Lily proves she is able to move effortlessly into strong teenage roles and more sophisticated material. She’s quite touching as a young Southern girl who comes of age with the help of some wonderful African-American women at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1964. Hudson also proves she can move comfortably beyond her Oscar-winning powerhouse debut in Dreamgirls. In Rosaleen she gives voice to a young black woman who is determined to exercise her right to vote for the first time but at a price. Latifah is warm and commanding and the Queen bee of this clan and her scenes with Fanning are nicely toned. In an unusual cast with lots of singers-turned-actresses such as Hudson and Latifah Keys also shows smart acting instincts even if her interpretation of June is a little on the flat side. Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) is simply wonderful and touchingly understated as the shy inward May. You wish there was more with her. Among the men Bettany takes a one-dimensional role as the demanding father and gives it some light while Parker (The Great Debaters) and Tristan Wilds as August’ godson and Lily’s new friend are spot on. Gina Prince-Bythewood who directs and smartly adapted the popular Sue Monk Kidd novel does go for the sentiment inherent in an old-fashioned story of this kind. But she also thankfully doesn’t pour it on. She creates a world in the deep South that doesn’t shy away from showing the harshness of life for African-Americans but whose lives at least politically are right at a major turning point. Most of all though she nurtures some lovely performances and brings an ensemble cast together with ease and heart. Prince-Bythewood whose breakthrough feature was the entertaining sleeper hit Love and Basketball clearly knows how to bring out the best in her actors. Secret Life of Bees elicits laughter and tears in equal doses proving to be the kind of not obviously commercial but uplifting movie-going experience rarely seen these days.