Set in the 1920s, Larita (Jessica Biel), a glamorous American widow and successful racecar driver, meets young John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) in Monaco. They marry, and he takes his bride home to meet his family at their dauntingly large rural mansion, where seven generations of Whittakers have been gentleman farmers. There she meets her icy cold mother-in-law, Veronica Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) and disheveled, sad-eyed father-in-law, Major Jim Whittaker (Colin Firth).
Veronica, already predisposed to dislike her new daughter-in-law ("John's floozy"), is further disappointed to find that she is a brash American who, like the Major, speaks fluent French. Larita also meets John's former girlfriend and neighbour Sarah Hurst (Charlotte Riley), who is gracious about the marriage. Larita remains calm in the face of her new mother-in-law's disdain, even being so bold as to reveal having been previously married.
Time passes, and to Larita's disappointment, John is not eager to leave the estate (filmed at Flintham Hall, Nottinghamshire) so that they can find a home of their own. Larita is bored and miserable in the countryside and hates blood sports like hunting, and any of the entertainment that country English people seem to enjoy. She reads Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, which shocks her husband's female relatives, and she doesn't want to play tennis. She also dislikes Veronica's stuffy decor, her constant entertaining of her friends, and the overcooked food. Worse still, she suffers from hay fever. She tries to get along with her mother-in-law, but Veronica refuses to accept her and resents her attempts to bring some American traditions into the situation.
Larita makes some inadvertent gaffes, accidentally killing the family chihuahua and giving some joking advice to the younger daughter, Hilda (Kimberley Nixon), that unfortunately results in embarrassment to, and enmity from, the daughters. Sarah comes to the Whittakers' parties, and to play tennis, accompanied by her brother Philip (Christian Brassington), on whom Hilda has a crush. Philip, however, is infatuated with Larita, which further angers Hilda.
To Veronica's horror, she and her hunting party discover John and Larita making love in an outbuilding. Larita becomes increasingly isolated and demoralized by her mother-in-law's derision, verbal attacks and dirty tricks. Larita's only sympathetic friends are the Major and the servants, whom she treats better than Veronica does. Larita retreats to the Major's workshop to help him work on his motorcycle. Still troubled from having lost all his men in the Great War, Jim Whittaker has lost interest in his home. Any love between him and his wife has long since disappeared.
The Whittaker estate has fallen on hard times. John, once in the shadow of his mother, loses his independence and seems immature to her as he is drawn into family life. In addition, John's affection for Larita seems to be waning, as he complains about his wife to Sarah, who finds his overture inappropriate.
Finally, Hilda obtains a newspaper cutting revealing scandalous secrets about Larita's first marriage to a much older man who was dying of cancer: she had helped him die using poison. John withdraws from Larita, while the Major scolds his daughters for their cruelty. At Veronica's next big party, John refuses to dance with Larita, so the Major dances a tango with her. She determines to leave the marriage, and on her way out of the mansion, she apologizes to Sarah for having interrupted her relationship with John. She hopes that Sarah will take John back. Veronica and her daughters confront Larita one last time, and an argument ensues in which Veronica and Larita trade barbs, and Larita advises the daughters to leave and see the world while they still can. Larita finally leaves after casually destroying a priceless bust, but the Major goes with her. Furber (Kris Marshall), the family butler, wishes them well.Jessica Biel as Larita Whittaker, a glamorous American widow and race car driverBen Barnes as John WhittakerColin Firth as Major Jim WhittakerKristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Veronica WhittakerKimberley Nixon as Hilda WhittakerKatherine Parkinson as Marion WhittakerKris Marshall as Furber the butlerChristian Brassington as Philip HurstCharlotte Riley as Sarah HurstJim McManus as JacksonPip Torrens as Lord HurstGeorgie Glen as Mrs. LangridonStephan Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins (uncredited) as Grumpy party guestsJohn Warburton as Mr. Gribble
Coward's play was adapted to the screen by Stephan Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins but hardly any feature of the original play remains besides the main characters, and even they do not greatly resemble Coward's cast.
In his autobiography, Present Indicative published in 1937, Coward describes his object in the play as being "to compare the declasse woman of to-day with the more flamboyant demi-mondaine of the 1890s." He goes on to say, "The line that was intended to establish the play on a basis of comedy rather than tragedy, comes at the end of the second act when Larita, the heroine, irritated beyond endurance by the smug attitude of her 'in-laws', argues them out of the room."
Although the play was made into a silent film in 1928 directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Isabel Jeans and Franklin Dyall, this film is not mentioned in Coward's autobiography. The 2008 version of the film is favourably reviewed by the Noël Coward Society.
Filmmaker Stephan Elliott instructed Kristin Scott Thomas to play Mrs. Whittaker as a "mustache-twirling... Disney witch." Initially, the actress responded by suggesting this is the worst direction she had ever received, but later embraced her character's wickedness and somewhat haggard appearance and unflattering wardrobe.
The film was shot in studio at the Ealing Studios in London, and on location at:Flintham Hall, Flintham, Nottinghamshire (Whittaker estate)Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire (Hurst estate)Englefield House, Berkshire (Monte Carlo)
The score for the film was produced by Marius de Vries and the film's director Stephan Elliott. It features several songs by Cole Porter and Noël Coward. It was performed by the Easy Virtue Orchestra - which was assembled specifically for the film. Jessica Biel makes her musical debut singing two tracks which are featured on the soundtrack album. Ben Barnes sings several songs on the sound track, including "Room With a View", while Colin Firth makes a guest appearance on the closing track.
Featured in the closing credits is a cover version, in 1920's faux-jazz style, of "When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going" (c. 1986), performed by Colin Firth, Ben Barnes, Jessica Biel, and Andy Caine. The song was written by Billy Ocean, Robert John "Mutt" Lange, Wayne Brathwaite, and Barry Eastmond. The British jazz renditions of the songs 'Car Wash' and 'Sex Bomb' were also included.
A soundtrack album was released on 3 November 2008 in stores and on iTunes.
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 53% based on 120 reviews. Metacritic gives the film a score of 58% based on reviews from 28 critics.
Colm Andrew of the Manx Independent gave the film 7/10 and said it was "a frothy affair but the source material is good - the script is workmanlike but at least it doesn't try to be clever and the quality of the acting makes sure the lines resonate soundly". Some critics felt that the movie’s insistent jazz-age lilt is ultimately at odds with a play written in 1924 that attacks the hypocrisy, smugness and benighted values of the English landed gentry between the wars. The screenplay includes scattered Coward bons mots, but the witticisms don’t come as thick or as fast as in his later plays.
Broadsheet and national British reviews were generally mixed or negative. Film Four's praised the casting of Biel and noted that, though Firth's and Thomas's casting was "hardly radical thinking, both offer something different from their previous period work". Philip French of the Observer wrote that the film was "well enough designed and photographed, but witless, anachronistic, cloth-eared, lacking in both style and period sense", while Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian attacked its script for "undermin[ing] the material by slipping arch modern phrases and gags into everyone's mouths". The critic of the Times awarded it only one star out of five, whilst Nicholas Barber of the Independent wrote that "every one of Elliott's straining efforts to turn Easy Virtue into a zany, risqué farce only makes it seems stuffier and starchier". Stella Papamichael of digital spy added that British jazz renditions of 'Car Wash' and 'Sex Bomb' used in the film were totally distracting.
The film earned US$18,463,608 worldwide. The film earned US$2,656,784 in Canada and the United States, Sony Pictures Classics paid an estimated US$1 million for distribution rights in the United States, Latin America and South Africa.