An Earnest Effort
Oliver Parker must be one courageous filmmaker. How many writers/directors would attempt to transfer The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s most amusing play, into a movie while trying to create a better version than Anthony Asquith’s beloved 1952 film? Although Parker achieved success with another Wilde classic, An Ideal Husband, that play is not as well-known, and his earlier film doesn't suffer by comparison to a previous movie adaptation.
How did Parker do this time? Very well, in most respects. With a star-studded cast including Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Frances O’Connor, and Judi Dench, his Earnest emerges as a joy to watch. The best of Wilde’s witty dialogue remains intact and is delivered with the snootiness expected from Wilde’s satirical depictions of British upper-class members in the 1890s. Dench (Iris), as Lady Bracknell, commands the screen in her garish gowns and oversized hats, especially when questioning her daughter’s (O’Connor) suitor regarding his suitability for marriage. "Losing one parent is a misfortune; but losing both parents is plain carelessness," she declares upon hearing the man is a foundling.
Everett (An Ideal Husband) and Firth (Bridget Jones’ Diary) exude duplicity as their characters sink deeper and deeper into a quicksand of lies by pretending to be someone named Ernest. Surprisingly, I had some difficulty understanding Everett, who swallows a few of his lines, but otherwise he’s practically perfect in the role of Algernon, a free-loader and cad who falls for Cecily (Witherspoon), the ward of his friend Jack (Firth). Both Witherspoon (Legally Blonde) and O’Connor (Mansfield Park) display considerable charm as women who insist on marrying a man named "Ernest." Witherspoon’s British accent comes across as quite authentic, and O’Connor’s haughtily flirtatious attitude seems just right for the adorable Miss Fairfax.
While giving Parker credit for trying to improve The Importance of Being Earnest by updating and adding cinematic touches, I think his efforts in this regard misfired. Asquith knew better. He made no attempt to disguise the film as anything more than a drawing-room farce. Parker misleads the audience by opening the movie with a chase scene in the streets of London. He also includes an unnecessary hot-air balloon sequence and out-of-place visits to a tattoo parlor.
I do, however, approve Parker’s addition of a delightful musical number (performed by Firth and Everett) featuring Wilde’s lyrics to "Lady, Come Down." Hey, here’s an idea – a musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest. After all, it worked for George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Just add music, change the title (My Friend Ernest?) -- and follow in the footsteps of My Fair Lady. I’ll buy the first ticket.
(Released by Miramax and rated "PG" for mild sensuality.)