Certain things are required to pull off a successful Noël Coward screen adaptation, but more than anything else, you need actors who can turn those eloquent, pithy phrases into verbal bombshells. Great directors have guided and goaded unlikely stars toward brilliance before; how Ernst Lubitsch transformed Gary Cooper and Fredric March into Coward-ly lions in his 1933 take on Design for Living remains a mystery. Even if Aussie filmmaker Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) had the former’s Midas touch, however, it’s doubtful he’d be able to help Jessica Biel do justice to Easy Virtue’s bons mots.
Playing a 1920s American race-car driver whose marriage to an Englishman (Barnes) upends the latter’s stuffy, hypocritical family, Biel is indeed believable as a woman who sends men into a tizzy. (“She isn’t built the same as us,” one character remarks. No kidding.) But she’s an actor who operates in two speeds—happy-haughty and irritated-haughty—and both turn any semblance of Cowardesque banter into a flatlining bark. Her presence becomes a black hole, which no amount of directorial irreverence—a hot jazz cover of…“Car Wash”?—or fine supporting work from Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas can plug up. Coward’s champagne-fizz lightness has never felt so labored; nothing here comes easy.