Importance Of Being Earnest

Movie Review by Kris Griffiths

Starring: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, Frances O’Connor
Director: Oliver Parker

In 1895, a few months after Earnest had opened at the theatre, Oscar Wilde was jailed for the crime of homosexuality and the play he had described as a “delicate bubble of fancy” proceeded to plummet like a lead zeppelin. In 2002, over a century later, Wilde’s crime has since lost its seriousness, but his writing certainly hasn’t lost its relevance. So believes Oliver Parker who, after first bringing AN IDEAL HUSBAND to the screen, unfurls this play from three rooms to a myriad of locations, from the re-launched Ealing Studios to rural Buckinghamshire, thus transforming the original bubble into a technicolour beach ball. What would Wilde have thought?

Save for some curious embellishments, his plot remains virtually intact. Jack (Firth) lives peacefully in a country house in Hertfordshire looking after his young niece Cecily (Witherspoon) but constantly travels to London to sort out the problems of the troublesome Earnest, a non-existent brother whose identity he assumes when wanting to let his hair down. His city chum Algernon (Everett) has also created a Doppelganger and is most interested in young Cecily. Meanwhile Jack, as Earnest, is in love with Algy’s socialite cousin Gwendolen and they agree to marry, but in steps her snooty and scornful mother, Lady Bracknell (Dench).

After interrogating Jack on his poshness and hearing of his lowly origins, she refuses her consent, forcing him to find a way of extinguishing Earnest and proving his social worthiness. Returning home to declare the tragic death of poor Earny he discovers that his alter-ego has been made flesh – Algy has turned up as the wayward brother to woo Cecily. And on their way are some angry debt collectors looking for Earnest, an angry Gwendolen looking for her fiance Earnest, and an angry Lady Bracknell looking for Gwendolen and Earnest. The importance of being you-know-who is soon revealed.

I can never quite place my finger upon why I like period drama so much – it could be the dress, the diction, the dialogue or maybe the drama – but neither can I work out whether I like TIOBE or not. First and foremost, as in all of Wilde’s plays, I love the language. I love all the witticisms (Jack: “How can you sit there calmly eating muffins?” Algy: “Well I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner”), all the quotable aphorisms (“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his”) and all the melodramatic wordiness (“I trust this garb of woe does not betoken some terrible calamity”). But if the language is paint, then the canvas has been stretched to breaking point.

It becomes plain that the director Oliver Parker is almost straining, dragging the play from stage to screen and squeezing and pulling it in all directions like a large lump of dough. The action of the three original acts flits incessantly between different locations which, although beautifully cinematographed, distracts from the stage play’s dramatic clout. Towards the implausible finale the reverse happens as everyone is crammed together into one room for all the revelations and romantic resolutions. Wilde would have wanted it loose and carefree, not loose then tight and collectively haphazard.

Through all the meddling, however, shines the superlative acting. Firth, the period drama pro, nonchalantly controls his role as the dry and uptight Jack alongside the excellent Everett, returning from the success of AN IDEAL HUSBAND as the witty dandy Algy. Dench hardly breaks into a sweat as the formidable Bracknell whilst Witherspoon, following the leads of Paltrow and Zelwegger, is endearing as well as expertly English-sounding.

Like the string quartet going down with their magnificent ship, it is a shame to see such a high quality ensemble cast giving it their all as the production of their play, a brilliant play, sinks under its overloadedness. The entertainment is still there but it’s of the illusory nature we see in the daft fantasy sequences tacked onto the film. Tacked alongside are curiosities such as a piano/guitar duet serenade, two trips to a tattoo parlour, the age lowering of some characters by six years and a music score based on spry Dixieland Jazz. In his grave, Wilde will either be rotating furiously or roaring with laughter.

3 out of 6 stars

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