Stephan Elliot directed the blockbuster Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which debuted in 1994. Now, after a skiing accident that nearly killed him, he’s back in top form with Easy Virtue, a dreamy new comedy with a sumptuously gay sensibility. His comeback is something great talents wisely do to get grounded again: Go back to the classics, the greats, then channel them, and have them guide you.
In Elliot’s case, it’s master gay playwright Noel Coward (1899-1973), whose 1925 comedy Easy Virtue, though not in league with his later gems, in Elliot’s crucible has been transformed into a superior work that seems to have lain dormant lo these multiple decades.
Cowriter and second unit director Sheridan Jobbins stresses, “The basics, the pointed humor, the heart of the piece are Coward. It’s just that the original was a melodrama, rather than a comedy.”
Elliot elaborates, “There was an older version of Coward that was much more fun,” meaning that as he matured, he freed up emotionally, and his writing improved enormously.
As Elliot relates with fond affection, “He was so bitter at 25, but he became much softer, and he got into the war effort, and actually became the real Coward that we know much more in his later years. Part of our thinking was this is a young buck really fighting the system here, and what would he have done if he was 25 years older?”
Legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock made a silent film version of Easy Virtue in 1928.
Elliot shares, “We took the older Coward, and we took the older Hitchcock. You look at it, and he wasn’t Hitchcock yet, either. He had to wait 30 years till he was in his prime. So, we have the master, which is Coward, in his prime, and we have the master of suspense, Hitchcock.”
In other words, Elliot develops what the masters at those early points in their career had yet to do themselves.
Easy Virtue is a 1920s story about Larita, a young, brash American motorcyclist, played with crackling luminescence by Jessica Biel. She marries John (Ben Barnes), an even younger Englishman, much to the dismay of his overbearing aristocratic mother, an acidly bitter Kristin Scott Thomas. Colin Firth portrays John’s father.
Elliot, Jobbins, and the actors rip forth a bewitching portrayal of intimate clashes between the British upper class and the American working class that seldom is portrayed. Biel is unexpectedly splendid, holding her own with the stellar British cast. When Oscar nods come around, she, Scott Thomas, and Firth should be on the short list.
Opens June 22
Landmark Edina Cinema
3911 w. 50th st., edina