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Bitter unions

Movies | Noel Coward's dour view of marriage comes to the big screen

Issue: "Is Christianity in the U.S. doomed?," June 20, 2009

Anyone worried about the affronts to traditional marriage presented in modern media would do well to remember that matrimony had to do battle with the late Noel Coward first. It's hard to think of a classic Coward character who is not divorced and embittered or does not become so over the course of one of the writer's many plays. There are at least three destroyed marriages in Easy Virtue, the latest film version of the funny, dour writer's work.

One of the reasons Coward chose the subject was that it made-or at least used to make-people uncomfortable. Divorce was simply Not Done, and it was certainly Not Done by the British, and it was most especially Not Done by People of Quality.

Such a person (sorry, Person) is Veronica Whitaker (Kristin Scott Thomas), who makes up in utter control what she lacks in happiness. Making her unhappy is her husband Jim (Colin Firth), a taciturn World War I veteran who is sick to death of his home life.

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Into the lives of these delightful people come family heir John (Ben Barnes) and his ravishing American wife, a race car driver named Larita-"Larry," to her friends (Jessica Biel). She's certainly Larita to Mrs. Whitaker-almost instantly, the two women begin a battle of wills.

It's hard to know what to make of Stephan Elliott's production, which airs the play out beautifully but also goes a little too far, festooning the movie with weird computer-generated images that don't belong in an English period drama. Elliott's main accomplishment is the series of fantastic performances he gets out of everyone, especially Firth.

The film is rated PG-13 for a tremendously unnecessary flash of nudity and a lot of "adult situations." Elliott makes Coward's ending, in which both marriages dissolve, a happier one than I think the playwright would have liked. (In Elliott's defense, not even Alfred Hitchcock got this play right on screen.) The play is funny, yes, but a divorcé's comedy may be a divorcée's tragedy.

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