April 4th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: A way out of the economic tsunami?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Senator Steve Fielding's political challenge

COMMONWEALTH GOVERNMENT: Rudd Government's radical agenda by stealth

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The Liberal Party faces moment of truth

QUEENSLAND STATE ELECTION I: Labor's Anna Bligh returns to power

QUEENSLAND STATE ELECTION II: Leading abortion campaigner defeated

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Can free trade theory survive the global slump?

ENVIRONMENT: Global cooling is here: Don Easterbrook

BIOETHICS: Plant liberation: Europe's next cause célèbre?

UNITED NATIONS: Voices for the unborn heard at UN session

OPINION: Granting scientists power to take innocent life

F.D. Roosevelt and Obama's strategies (letter)

Agriculture the best-performing sector (letter)

Increasing populations (letter)

CINEMA: Easy Virtue - Dark side of 'deliciously funny comedy'

BOOKS: SMACK EXPRESS: How Organised Crime Got Hooked on Drugs, by Clive Small and Tom Gilling

BOOKS: JOURNEY TO ETERNITY: Victim of Apartheid: a novel, by Eric Carman

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Easy Virtue - Dark side of 'deliciously funny comedy'

by Len Phillips (reviewer)

News Weekly, April 4, 2009
Len Phillips reviews Easy Virtue (rated PG).

Jessica Biel (left) and
Ben Barnes in Easy Virtue

I came across an odd little story in the latest Reader's Digest which I have been mulling over quite a bit since.

A woman had written that her 10-year-old son had asked her to load some Rolling Stones songs onto his iPod. She said to him with some surprise, "But I had no idea you liked the Stones!"

"Sure," he replied. "I really like old-fashioned music."

"Old-fashioned!", she exclaimed. "What do you mean by old-fashioned?"

He said: "Oh you know, music from the 1900s."

In many ways, that story really interested me. The least shocking part is that now, nine years into the new millennium, the 1900s are a bygone century of which anyone 10-years-old or younger will have no personal memory.

But then I got around to thinking that the Rolling Stones had come on the scene in the early 1960s, so the music would have to be something like 40 years old or more and really is old-fashioned. An equivalent episode in that era would have been a mother in 1968 taping for her son music from the 1920s.

Salacious lyrics

But what really interested me, remembering as I did the public scandal that accompanied the 1965 release of the Rolling Stones' song (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, with its salacious lyrics, was that a modern mother in 2009 might blithely record such music for her 10-year-old child. It was one more reminder among millions that the times really have been a-changin'.

All this is by way of introduction to a movie we went to see called Easy Virtue. I was looking for a bit of relief from the heavy-duty types of films we've been seeing lately, and this seemed somewhat promising. The story was "based on" a 1924 play by Noël Coward, which should have made it a bit light and easy, but then again perhaps not.

To me, the words "is based on" is code for "bears little or no resemblance to". Somewhere beneath it all, there would be an original play that had been creatively altered, with perhaps a scene here and there left intact. The characters would have the same names and the synopsis would on occasion meander in the direction of the original, but with no particular need to retain anything specific.

This was not a widely known play. It had long been fairly obscure. Fidelity to the way it was first performed would have been about as low on the scale of priorities as one could get.

The son and heir of an ancient English family, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), brings home as his bride Larita (Jessica Biel), a female car-racing champion who, in addition to all of her other character flaws, is also American. The female side of the English family, especially the boy's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), cannot bear this foreign invasion - beautiful, talented, practical and sensible though the bride is.

Only the father, played by Colin Firth, takes to Larita and provides his daughter-in-law with the kind of warmth that ought to have been her due.

Let me not detain you with plot detail but roll on straight to the end. The bride has had a previous husband. But this first husband had reportedly died from cancer, so apparently no fault there. But then we find that not only was it not the cancer that killed him, but it was Larita who was then put on trial for his murder.

Can you see it coming? Of course you can. She had administered a "mercy-killing", and was later acquitted.

Nevertheless, because she had not levelled with her new husband, he is alienated from his bride. But in a happy finale for everyone - happy, that is, for a 2009 audience - the new husband decides to abandon his wife and marry the heiress next door, while Larita runs off with Colin Firth, her father-in-law.

So ends "a deliciously funny comedy of manners", which is how the film is described in the accompanying brochure.

Well, let's face it, mercy-killing, abandoning one's spouse, and moving in with one's father-in-law are all storyline props that will raise hardly a murmur in an audience today. We are the generation who either grew up with the Rolling Stones or are members of some subsequent generation for whom the Stones' music and lyrics are perfectly suitable for the iPod of a 10-year-old.

The brochure boasts that the movie "retains the essential qualities of the original ... while making it relevant to a contemporary audience".

Well, I wonder. You decide how much of either half of that statement is true. Below is a 2002 description of the original 1928 silent movie version of Easy Virtue, directed by Alfred Hitchcock no less. It says:

"Our heroine Larita is married to a drunken brute. After he catches her almost (but not quite) being seduced by the artist who has been painting her picture, he brings suit for divorce....

"We see a gripping trial scene in which the jury has to decide whether to believe Larita's denials. Of course, the jury can't see beyond its Victorian preconceptions and it finds her guilty.

"Now a disgraced woman of 'easy virtue', Larita takes to the Riviera where she ensnares a rich young suitor. Unfortunately, she doesn't tell him about her chequered past and naturally Larita's [new] family hates her on sight." And etc, etc.

When the play was originally written, the avant-garde issue was divorce. This, 80 years later, is a battle so overwhelmingly over that no movie would even think to make it an issue.

Now, for contemporary audiences, the avant-garde issue is about the right to kill those who are sick and dying. One can only wonder whether, 80 years from now, this will have become as common as divorce is today.

- Film reviewed by Len Phillips.

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