2008 Certificate: pg

Synopsis

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert director Stephan Elliott takes Noel Coward's 1924 comedy roller for a spin with Jessica Biel in the driving seat. She plays Larita, an American girl-racer whose marriage to an English toff (Ben Barnes) meets stiff opposition from his highly strung mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) at the family's country estate. Colin Firth's resigned father-in-law tries to keep the peace, but there's no stopping the ladies when they get Coward's wit between their teeth in this thoroughly boffo adaptation.

Director

  • Stephan Elliott

Cast

  • Jessica Biel

  • Ben Barnes

  • Kristin Scott Thomas

  • Colin Firth

  • Kimberley Nixon

Review

The last person to put Easy Virtue on the silver screen was a young up-and-comer by the name of Alfred Hitchcock. And his version was silent - which rather defeats the object of anything written by Noel Coward.

Still, an absence of eighty years suggests that Coward's repartee might, to modern ears, have lost some of its zing and relevance. Not a word of it.

Fresh from taking the chequered flag at Monte Carlo and marrying dashing Englishman John Whittaker (Barnes), Yankee racing queen Larita (Biel) arrives at his family pile to meet her new in-laws.

Sadly, John's mother Veronica (Scott Thomas) does not find her as frightfully exciting as his sisters Hilda and Marion (Kimberley Nixon and Katherine Parkinson). At least Great War veteran Mr Whittaker (Firth) seems pleased - though it's difficult to tell. (Good lord, we appear to be among the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice again...)

Larita is clearly a woman ahead of her time, her fancy New World ideas sitting ill with Veronica's traditional views.

With nothing in common but sharp tongues and a fierce competitive streak, a battle of wills inevitably ensues. And from canine collateral damage to skeletons being sprung from closets, nobody escapes unscathed.

Building on her bodice of work in The Illusionist, Biel is clearly as comfortable in period dress as established corset queens Renee Zellweger and Gwyneth Paltrow and easily knocks the similarly inclined Scarlett Johansson into a cocked (top) hat.

Her verbal jousts with the redoubtable Scott Thomas give the film its juice but while it's definitely ladies first, the chaps are perfectly capable of holding their own.

Firth gives his most engaging and understatedly gallant performance since Darcy, Kris 'BT Broadband' Marshall provides extra comic bandwidth as bone-dry butler Furber, and following Stardust, Prince Caspian and Bigga Than Ben, it's obvious that the in-demand Barnes is doing something right.

With dead dogs and knickerless Englishwomen to the fore, one might expect the people behind Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to swamp it all in high-camp histrionics.

But while Aussie director Elliott gives it a lightly stylised makeover and music supremo Marius De Vries puts 20s-style tweaks on contemporary classics - Car Wash, Sex Bomb, Billy Ocean's When the Going Gets Tough - to accompany more time-honoured ditties by Coward and Cole Porter, it's a refreshingly crisp and accessible affair.

Easy on both eye and ear, this jaunty little number has many virtues to commend it.

Elliott Noble