Importance of Being Earnest, The (UK 2002) ** or ***
Directed by Oliver Parker. Written by Mr. Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde. Photography, Tony Pierce-Roberts. Editing, Guy Bensley.Production design, Luciana Arrighi. Music, Charlie Mole. Producer, Barnaby Thompson.Cast: Rupert Everett (Algy), Colin Firth (Jack), Frances O'Connor (Gwendolen), Reese Witherspoon (Cecily), Judi Dench (Lady Bracknell), Tom Wilkinson (Dr. Chasuble), Anna Massey (Miss Prism), Edward Fox (Lane), Patrick Godfry (Merriman) and Charles Kay (Gribsby). A Miramax release. 94 minutes. PG. At the New Art Theater.
Allow me to explain my odd rating for this film. You might reasonably think "Doesn't this come to a two-and-a-half stars rating? Why not say it?" That meaning, dear reader, in not in our stars, but in ourselves who know or know not Oscar Wilde. My educated guess is that in viewers who do not know the play or (Heavens forbid!) might ask "Oscar Who?" this film version could easily cause three-star glee. For those who have read or seen and retained the details of the original, the movie could be seen as "lese majesté" that would translate as two stars.
Earnest is what a duo of men are when love-smitten. Ernest is the name which is not theirs yet is used by those two best friends in at various times.
The 1895 Wilde comedy is set in the waning years of Queen Victoria's reign. Jack is a foundling who was adopted by a rich man. He has wealth, a splendid country mansion, a life of ease and frolic. But for the latter one must go to London, which is what Jack does, officially to assist his imaginary brother Ernest, a name that Jack appropriates when frequenting high society in the capital.
His boon companion Algy lives in London, and is always debt-ridden. When necessary, he escapes in the opposite direction, the country, to comfort a sick friend, also imaginary.
In London, Jack (as Ernest) courts Gwendolen, the daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell, aka Algy's Aunt Agatha. When Jack hears Gwendolen saying "my idea was always to love someone with the name of Ernest" he is in a pickle within the cucumber-sandwich nibbling society. Worse yet, when he asks for her hand in marriage and is interviewed by Lady Bracknell who is attracted by his wealth (a great scene!) he explains that he has lost his parents. She declares : "To lose one parent is a misfortune; to lose both is negligence." This leads to Jack's confession that when he was a baby, he was found bundled up within a bag left in Victoria Station. That does it. Lady B will not allow her daughter "to marry in a cloak-room and to make an alliance with a parcel!"
Judy Dench's imperiousness is a delight, as when she orders "In the carriage, Gwendolyne!" who protest that she is engaged. Her mother's response :"You will be engaged when your father and I tell you so."
In an arch-complicated plot, Algy goes to Jack's estate to meet, for the first time, his friend's ward, the pretty 18-year old Cecily who dreams of a knight in shining armor. He introduces himself as Ernest, which just happens to be also Cecily's favorite name.
What follows is equally absurd and, in the play, sublimely amusing. Just think of the icreasing maze. Phony identities, conflicts of names, parodies, drawing room quid pro quos, impersonations, further confusions involving Cecily's governess Miss Prism as well as her suitor, the clergyman Dr. Chasuble. (Ah those names!), and much else.
Wilde's confections of the gilded age (for the minority, the non-working classes) are primarily, in fact overwhelmingly, built on language, humor, wit, outrageous declarations, linguistic twists and barbs, apothegms
The movie retains most of those pearls. But in other respects it often errs. The play is "opened up" and "aired out" visu- -- but open too much and you let the gremlins in. There are too many additions to the original. Some work or do they. At first sight, Gwendolen's driving a car stresses that she's a thoroughly modern Gwendy. On second thought, this makes her lack of independence from mom, her bowing to the Mother Knows Best status quo, a blow to the movie's attempts at feminism.
The film's inventions can also distract from, interfere with, the dialogues. When Cecily's romantic vision of her knight is actually illustrated, it jolts. The anachronistic music score, especially a chorus's awful serenade , is a major mistake. There is more.
Somewhat annoying is the manner in attention is called to many of the funny bits. It reminds me of the "Nudge, nudge" and "Got it? Got it?" in Monty Python, very comical there but inflationary here.
It is as though director-writer , Parker, after his previous, very nice and successful adaptation of Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" mistrusted today's younger generation which has perhaps never known true wit and/or truly classic farce. That age group would need some physical obviousness to "get" the movie. But why didn't Parker also think that, most of his future audience was bound to be grown up, mature and in no need of coddling with supplementary devices?
Warts and all, this movie's verbal Wilde-isms do charm. Good acting helps, especially Dame Dench's steel to the other characters' cotton candy. I never thought, among others, that some day I'd be impressed by Reese Witherspoon, but she's fine, and convincingly British.
Note that the British veteran Anthony Asquith had written and directed a delightful adaptation of the Wilde play in 1952, starring Michael Redgrave as Jack, Michael Denison, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Dorothy Tutin, Margare t Rutherford, Miles Malleson et al. That version has not been dethroned by the current one.