Importance of Being Earnest
review by Gianni Truzzi, 24 May 2002
Parker opens up the action of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 sendup of class
and custom well beyond the stage’s confines of the gentleman’s
drawing room. He shows us London’s rowdy music halls, sinful
smoking clubs and elegant restaurants where Jack Worthing (Colin
Firth) carouses with his friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert
Everett). We glimpse his dual life as his brother Ernest when in
town, while maintaining his respectability as Jack in the country.
Under the gilt dressing and ornate plaster of her mansion, Gwendolen
(Frances O’Connor) confesses she loves him only as Ernest, and
Algernon, also pretending to be Ernest, courts young Cecily (Reese
Witherspoon) amid the manicured gardens of Jack’s country estate.
These are the bits of visual elegance to match Wilde’s droll wit
we’ve been waiting for.
is less liberating than one might expect. Perhaps because, in his
eagerness, Parker embellishes too much. Wilde never wrote Gwendolen
receiving a tattoo on her butt-cheek (most indiscreet!) or a fantasy
knight on horseback tearing up the garden beds. Did Earnest
really need tarting up?
Rupert Everett gives the
rapscallion Algy the same laconic dash he employed in An Ideal
Husband, Parker’s earlier (and more successful) transfer of an
Oscar Wilde play to film. Everett’s long, handsome face grants him
a sense of aristocratic indolence, making his Algernon a viper who
is too lazy to strike. As Jack/Ernest, Colin Firth is dependable and
dull, never seeming capable of any deep mischief. Casting Legally
Blonde’s Reese Witherspoon was a clever stroke; her Cecily’s
scheming might be dangerous if she knew anything about the world.
O’Connor doesn’t seem to have made up her own mind about
Gwendolen, whose intelligence never seems to have found anything
worthwhile to be applied to.
Judi Dench looks at home as Lady
Bracknell, Gwendolen’s imperious mother whose exacting social
standards are Jack’s chief obstacle to matrimony. Like
Shakespeare’s nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Sheridan’s Mrs.
Malaprop or Margaret Dumont’s indignant dame in the Marx Brothers
comedies, Lady Bracknell is the matriarch that speaks ridiculously
for respectable society. Dench perches in her armchair, dressed up
like a bottle of bath oils, and makes pronouncements on fashion ("chins
are worn very high at present") and the unacceptability of Jack’s
uncertain parentage, found as he was in Victoria station’s baggage
check. It seems like the part Dench has been waiting her life to
Wilkinson (of In the Bedroom) does a nice turn as the timid
Doctor Chasuble, Wilde’s swipe at the ineptness of the church.
Anna Massey, too, as Cecily’s tutor and Chasuble’s love
interest, helps Wilde to mock the rules of social grace with her
wide-eyed declarations of propriety.
The play, a
popular chestnut for college and community theater as well as
Wilde’s biggest commercial success, is preposterous folderol, its
romp of identity deception little more than a home for parched bon
mots. While clever, it has always been dramatically weak. Jack
and Algernon are bloodless wags who speak of love with all the
passion of accountants comparing sums. Wilde’s view of man was
dim, but he saw women not at all; Gwendolen and Cecily are vain,
silly creatures who speak in absolutes but maintain few convictions.
Yet a fan of the theater can’t help but maintain affection for its
sense of fun.
shouldn’t have to compete with scenery, as Anthony Asquith’s
1952 more stage-like version proved. Algernon does not, as Parker
has him, make a balloon-riding entrance like Phineas Fogg, nor does
he dress in armor to reflect Cecily’s romantic dreams. But
Asquith’s actors do speak to each other.
Parker’s enhancements don’t rescue Earnest from the
contrivance of its plot. Wilde’s weightless banter struggles
against the literal-minded, rococo flourishes that Parker has tied
to its back. His camera seldom stays still, refusing to trust his
actors to carry the verbal swordplay on their own. Directors of an
earlier age, like Howard Hawks with His Girl Friday or George
Cukor with Born Yesterday, understood that material that
succeeds on the stage needs little dressing up. Parker’s faith in
us is no better, drawing us pictures of what bounces around his
characters’ empty heads.
missing most, even with the better performances, is the sense that
the actors were in the same room. Their manner remains above the
fray and they talk past one another. In Jack and Algernon’s small,
overbred circle, nothing ever seems to be of much consequence. To
Jack’s accusation, "Algy, you never talk anything but nonsense,"
the jaded rogue replies, "Nobody ever does." That might just sum up
this eye-catching but disappointing movie.
R - Restricted.
No one under 17
admitted without parent
or adult guardian.