Mad About the Boy

Video: Australian director Stephan Elliott on his film of Noel Coward's play "Easy Virtue" and the musical "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

published Friday, June 5, 2009

Director and screenwriter Stephan Elliott learned about film-to-stage transition when he and Allan Scott created a musical based on Elliott's 1994 breakthrough film, the drag classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The musical version opened on London's West End in March, at the Palace Theatre, where Les Miserables ran for two decades.

But he also has experience adapting the other way around, from theater to movie. Noel Coward's 1924 drawing room comedy Easy Virtue is the basis for his new Sony Pictures Classics film of the same name. It opened June 5 at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano.

Easy Virtue is a good-looking and an enjoyable trifle, a period comedy about a racecar-driving American divorcee named Larita (Jessica Biel) who meets and quickly marries handsome Englishman John Whittaker (Ben Barnes, who was Prince Caspian in the most recent The Chronicles of Narnia film). She visits his upper-class family in the South of France and finds herself at odds with her new mother-in-law, played by the incomparable Kristin Scott Thomas, and her criminally ignored father-in-law (Colin Firth, who is criminally under-used).

What the film lacks in Coward-style irony it makes up for with marvelous visuals and the occasional venture into slapstick. In one of the movie's funnier moments, Larita makes things worse for herself in an unfortunate accident involving Mrs. Whittaker's precious little pouch. That's just one scene not found in Coward's three-act original. Indeed, another of the film's pluses is that it nicely opens up the play. It never feels stagey or overly theatrical.

A major element of the film is the use of 1920s music, including several songs by Coward (A Room With a View) and Cole Porter (You're the Top), sung by a collective assembled especially for this movie. The vocalists include Elliott, Barnes and Biel, who surprises with a sultry vocal on the Coward classic Mad About the Boy. They also take pop songs from the latter half of the 20th century—Car Wash, Tom Jones' Sex Bomb and Billy Ocean's When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going—and amusingly turn them into 1924-style delights. The soundtrack is available here. (In the Easy Virtue Orchestra, Elliott also plays slide whistle.)

On his recent trip to Dallas, Theater Jones caught up Elliott to discuss mad dogs, Englishmen, the film's music, the terrible ski accident that set his career back for a decade, and stalking Firth and Thomas. In the above video, he also talks about what he calls his ol' ball-and-chain, Priscilla, and turning that into a musical. Thanks For Reading

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Mad About the Boy
Video: Australian director Stephan Elliott on his film of Noel Coward's play "Easy Virtue" and the musical "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."
by Mark Lowry

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