Noel Coward was one of the best English playwrights of the early 20th century, and perhaps one of the most underrated and forgotten. It’s a shame so few of his plays have been made into movies – they’re certainly better material for costume dramas than a lot of the stuff that’s being made.
Ben Barnes is a titled young Englishman who falls in love with a dashing American racecar driver, played (quite well, actually) by Jessica Biel. He loves her, or at least thinks he does, because she is adventurous and daring and unusual. These may be great reasons to fall in love, but they’re a pretty poor foundation for a marriage. He takes her home, to his crumbling English manor, neurotic sisters and bitter, manipulative mother (played with absolutely no color or depth by a disappointing Kristen Scott Thomas) and disengaged father. Biel thinks they are just there for a visit, but as the visit grows ever longer, and Barnes discovers the poor financial state of the family, she begins to wonder if they will ever leave. Barnes may want a racecar driver wife, but he wants a life of fox hunts, Christmas pageants, and estate management. The two aren’t exactly compatible.
While Scott Thomas plays the stereotypical, utterly predictable Manipulative English Mother and the sisters are neurotic beyond understanding, Beil turns in a nuanced performance that is only matched by Colin Firth in his portrayal of the family father. He has returned from the War the only survivor of the unit he led, all men and boys from his town. The experience has left him unattached, barely alive, and absolutely unafraid to say what he feels, yet utterly unable to do anything about anything. Firth and Biel carry the movie; they are real characters amongst a crew of stereotypes. It seems fitting that “Easy Virtue” ends with the two of them driving away from the manor together.