Easy Virtue opens Friday in select theaters

Easy Virtue may be a country manor movie for people who don’t like them very much.

The genre has gone downhill ever since Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game set the standard in 1939. But it’s been a long slope with the gentle upswings and plateaus of such films as Gosford Park and Atonement. That most of these films are about the decline of the European landed gentry and the impossibility of that lifestyle continuing to exist after the blitzkrieg of France and the evacuation at Dunkirk makes them all the more palatable to today’s audiences, which otherwise disdain the privilege of birthright.

The lightly enjoyable Easy Virtue follows the template: Working from the 1924 play by the inimitable Noel Coward, director Stephan Elliott and his co-scenarist, Sheridan Jobbins, introduce us to a decaying, landed English family headed by Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth), who have two daughters struggling to find husbands. We gather that the Whittakers’ marriage is a pinched, lonely and sexless one, with the husband deep in dissipation and endlessly at work in his shop, and his wife taking consolation in her tyrannical authority over the household and its small staff.

Somewhere out on the continent, son John (Ben Barnes), who is the family’s best hope for the future, is gallivanting about, much to his mother’s dismay. But barrel home he does, in a bitching BMW, with his new American bride at the wheel. Larita (Jessica Biel) is a car racer who has become the toast of Europe at Monte Carlo, which she first won and then was disqualified from.

Larita is gorgeous, charming and bright and she charms the denizens of the staid estate. Not all of them, however: To Mrs. Whittaker, Larita is also fatally Not Our Class, Dear. For one thing, she’s the daughter of a Detroit factory worker; for another, she actually depends on racing for her income; and for another, she’s been married once before.

The tale chronicles the escalating hostilities between Mrs. Whittaker, characterized as a medusa, and the classless American woman who would take away her only joy (and boy). A series of comic episodes follows, involving everything from a fox hunt to the unfortunate demise of a chihuahua (which Sopranos fans will anticipate).

Biel is one of those actresses you can’t quite remember how you knowshe’s well-known without being distinguished, one of a bevy of attractive and talented young women trying to set themselves apart in strong roles, some with more success (Anne Hathaway, Charlize Theron) then others (the list of former It Girls is long.) (For the record, Biel’s recent credits include The Illusionist and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.) In Easy Virtue, her presence works perfectly: She’s beautiful, she’s smart, she knows everyone’s looking at her, and yet she intuitively knows she doesn’t belong.

Scott Thomas, always a paragon of high-class, if astringent, Anglo-Franco sex appeal, plays an romantically defeated yet fully capable control freak and acidic put-down artist. Her matriarch, we learn, never had a chance to see the world beyond the fox-populated hedgerows of her estate. Her husband suffered terribly in the Great War, and chose to remain on the continent afterward in a druggy haze. Meanwhile, her life has devolved into clinging to her children with a ferocity that will ensure that they, too, never leave the land; a late plot point evokes Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and Mrs. Whittaker’s distressed response to the crisis is at once poignant and admirable.

But this is Noel’s world, not Anton’s, which means you might have more funeven if you don’t remember it in the morning. Director Elliott avoids lingering, sentimental gazes at the bric-a-brac, emphasizing instead the dreary ordinariness of the Whittaker estate. He keeps his pacing quickfor it is a snappy Coward script, after alland deftly allows the physical and verbal comedy to flourish. The musical direction is an inspired pastiche of anachronism; at one point, the 1976 disco hit “Car Wash” comes on, in a ragtime-style arrangement. The colliding time periods work to not only lighten the mood, but to lift the veil of literary solemnity that tends to enshroud the country manor film. Furthermore, the passing away of old Europe and the ascendancy of the American century was a transition from a culture that had little besides its history to a culture that was all future, no history. We know which side won, but it’s our lingering nostalgia for the Old Worldto which we’ve been saying goodbye for nearly a centurythat keeps us returning to the country manor pictures.