Alfred HitchcockIsabel JeansIan HunterViolet Farebrother
Easy Virtue
Medium: film
Year: 1928
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Noel Coward, Eliot Stannard
Keywords: silent
Country: UK
Actor: Isabel Jeans, Franklin Dyall, Eric Bransby Williams, Ian Hunter, Robin Irvine, Violet Farebrother, Frank Elliott, Dacia Deane, Dorothy Boyd, Enid Stamp-Taylor
Format: 79 minutes
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 13 April 2012
Epic fail. Sorry, Hitchcock.
Okay, that's unfair. It's not horrible, but simply mediocre. "Epic" refers to the gulf between potential and achievement, since this is based on a Noel Coward play and with hindsight there seems no excuse for this level of disappointment. Coward's autobiography doesn't even mention it. Problems include:
(a) For both it was a relatively early work, with Coward having been 25 when his original stage play came out, shortly after his first big critical and commercial hit with The Vortex. As for Hitchcock, obviously it's one of his silent movies, made only a few years after his directorial debut.
(b) A horrendous clash between medium and material. Noel Coward's all about dialogue and wit, but this is a silent movie. Furthermore the plot is full of stuff that was never going to work well. The first twenty minutes are a courtroom scene! Look at the lawyers talking! Eh? Admittedly there are flashbacks, but even so that's just bizarre. Fundamentally this story depends on things that are hard to communicate visually, such as the social stigma of divorce and the different ways in which people fall in or out of love with each other.
(c) Isabel Jeans in the lead role. In fairness, she's clearly better than she looks here. She's quite good when she's playing a strong character who's in control of the scene and it's possible to see that she has plenty of personality. Hitchcock also cast her in Downhill (1927) and Suspicion (1941) and she'd go on to do well in Hollywood playing grande dames. Here though she's wooden. When she's merely suffering nobly (i.e. most of the time), she simply doesn't communicate anything to the audience. At her very worst, she's doing Silent Movie Acting, i.e. lift the arm to indicate distress, etc. She doesn't sell her scenes. We don't feel her pain and we don't see inside her head. Admittedly she does get an "I'm taking control" moment and in that she's better, but fundamentally this is her movie and she flubs it.
(d) The plot's dated. Marrying a divorcee can bring shame on your family. These days it would take a bit of work to get an audience even to be able to conceive of this viewpoint in the first place, let alone relate to it.
All that could have sunk any movie, really. Hitchcock makes the film interesting, but none of his twiddles make the storytelling clearer and so I'm going to blame him too.
At times the film hardly seems to have a narrative. The plot isn't communicating very well, so it just comes across as actors doing stuff. However Hitchcock almost turns this into a positive feature by making the first act feel like a nightmare. Look at all those malevolent, staring faces. Jeans's first husband is a thing of horror. The judge in the opening shot is meant to be ridiculous, with his spectacles symbolising the blindness of justice, but there's an extra layer of surrealism in the fact that we're watching someone being put on trial without sound. Justice is deaf too! Hitchcock creates striking images, e.g. the painterliness of Jeans posing for her painter, and overall the effect is almost disturbing.
This kind of perceptual distortion is strongest in the first act, but it never goes away entirely. Partly it's Hitchcock trying to be too clever. I think the poodle and the bulldog are supposed to indicate that we're looking at the luggage of the wife and the husband respectively, but today that just looks like two dogs. I think two characters are identical twins. Jeans's first meeting with Robin Irvine reminded me of a vampire choosing a victim, then much later briefly appears to become a lesbian.
The film's at its best when an actor manages to break out. All those nightmare faces early on are classic, while the best performance here is clearly Violet Farebrother as the scary implacable mother-in-law. She's not perfect, but she's streets ahead of anyone else here and extremely watchable. She also looks like a man, or perhaps a gargoyle. Hitchcock used her too in other films: Downhill and Murder!. I'm a fan. There's also a brilliant cameo from a telephone operator eavesdropping on someone's proposal of marriage, which again doesn't communicate the story to the audience (bad Hitchcock!) but is awesome anyway because the actress is throwing her all into it. That's the best bit in the film, by miles.
Incidentally this isn't the only adaptation of Easy Virtue. There's also a 2008 2008 British-Canadian romantic comedy, starring Jessica Biel, Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas. It's also a musical, with lots of Noel Coward and other jazz age songs. That sounds much more interesting.
Overall, not a success. Noel Coward gets gutted and filleted, with Hitchcock not helping. (They were both born in 1899, curiously enough.) Occasionally the narrative finds traction. Jeans is fun when she's nuking that party, for instance, while I also enjoyed "her past life is no concern of ours." Nevertheless the film fundamentally doesn't work and on top of that keeps dating itself. In one scene, Jeans wears a fox fur stole, complete with the fox's head. "To-night" in the intertitles faintly irritated me. It's glorious to see a silent film that wholeheartedly inhabits the medium, but this is a silent film that will make you wish you could turn on the sound. Hitchcock's twiddles add interest, but the movie doesn't work.
"Have you had as many lovers as they say?"
"Of course not. Hardly any of them actually loved me."