The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)


 

The Importance of Being Earnest
Algie and Jack try to make sense of the intricate plot.

 

 

(Miramax) Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Frances O’Connor, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Anna Massey, Edward Fox. Directed by Oliver Parker

 

I find it somewhat depressing that in this day and age, a mind-bending number of Americans have never heard of the great Oscar Wilde, and only a very few have even experienced one of his plays performed on stage. There’s something about it that just seems blatantly wrong.

 

One of his best and best-known plays was The Importance of Being Earnest which was first performed back in 1895. It is the very epitome of the drawing room comedy; most of the action onstage takes place in a drawing room, and like most of Wilde’s work, nearly every line is a gem, a bon mot that stands the test of time. Yes, there are a few topical references but not enough to make a modern audience scratch their head in puzzlement, other than those rubes who would do so anyway.

Trying to describe the plot of the play is time-consuming and in the end is a lot like describing quantum mechanics to a four-year-old. The plot is intricate and full of layers and twists and turns, some of which you can see coming but many that you can’t. The basics are this; Jack Worthing (Firth) is a foundling who was adopted by a country squire; fully grown now, he acts as the guardian to his benefactor’s granddaughter Cecily Cardew (Witherspoon).

 

Jack often travels to London to rescue his ne’er-do-well brother Ernest out of a jam. The problem is that there is no brother Ernest; it’s a ruse calculated to allow Jack to come and go as he pleases. When he is in town, he takes the name of Ernest for himself so that he may remain incognito and as Ernest, he has fallen in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax (O’Connor), the lovely and practical granddaughter of Lady Augusta Bracknell (Dench).  Gwendolyn also returns his affections.

 

Jack also visits his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Everett) who is actually pretty close to the scoundrel Jack makes his non-existent brother to be. He uses the excuse of visiting an ill friend named Bunbury to escape the city when creditors begin to close in on him. On one of these expeditions to the countryside, he winds up at Jack’s home where he takes on the persona of Jack’s fictitious brother Ernest, and promptly falls in love with Cecily (are you with me so far?).

 

That’s more or less the set-up; you can guess that there will be many obstacles that will be tossed in the way of the happiness of both couples, until Love Conquers All in the final act (or in this case, reel). Unlike other similar drawing room comedies of the day, Wilde threw in a lot of observations of the human condition, particularly where it regards class distinctions and sexual politics.

 

This is a lush-looking production, with the bucolic English countryside taking center stage. Parker, who in 1999 filmed the adaptation of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (and would make it a trifecta in 2009 when he filmed Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) knows how to evoke the era visually, with splendid costumes, magnificent estates and staid English manners.

 

It’s a shame he got infected with Anachronistic Music Syndrome. Those of you who’ve seen A Knight’s Tale and basically anything Baz Luhrmann ever directed will know it; it’s the occasion when a movie set in one period uses a musical score that is in the style of a different period. So when the swing music of the 1940s is the background for a Victorian drawing room comedy, it just wipes the mood right off the screen. It’s an offshoot of Look Ma I’m Directing Disease, and not a pleasant one.

 

However, when you have Oscar Wilde writing your screenplay (and Parker utilizes Wilde’s play word-for-word in many instances), you really can’t go wrong. Few writers before or since have had the wit of Wilde, and none the ability to mask social satire with urbane mannerisms.

 

It helps to have a superior cast. Firth and Everett are two dependable performers who both do quite splendidly in their role. Dench was born to play the crusty Lady Bracknell and does so with gusto. Even Witherspoon, the company’s token American, adopts an English accent rather nicely; my only complaint is that she’s so bloody gorgeous that you sometimes get so lost in her looks that you forget that she’s speaking important dialogue.

 

There are a couple of fantasy sequences that Parker (who also wrote the screenplay) inserted into the film that really didn’t need to be there, but in all honesty it’s all right. If you have never seen or read an Oscar Wilde play, this is as good a place as any to acquaint yourself with him. It’s not quite as good in many ways as the 1952 film version (which starred Michael Redgrave as Jack, Michael Denison as Algernon and Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell) that Anthony Asquith directed but it doesn’t disgrace itself either.

 

WHY RENT THIS: It’s Oscar Wilde; nearly every line is laugh-out-loud funny, even more than a century later.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Anachronistic musical score syndrome torpedoes the audience out of the atmosphere and mood.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of drinking and smoking but as you would expect from a play written during the Victorian era, there is nothing here you should feel uncomfortable letting your entire family watch. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actress Finty Williams, who portrays Lady Bracknell as a young dancer, is in reality Dame Judi Dench’s daughter. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.3M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crossing Over

Easy Virtue


Easy Virtue

Colin Firth and Jessica Biel trip the light fantastic.

(Sony Classics) Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson, Kris Marshall, Christian Brassington, Charlotte Riley, Jim McManus, Pip Torrens. Directed by Stephan Elliott

Part of the way we are brought up is to keep our problems and tragedies hidden. Therefore, even the lives that seem most perfect on the surface have some kind of ugliness hiding just below the façade.

John “Panda” Whittaker (Barnes), scion of a wealthy English family, is attending the 1924 Grand Prix at Monte Carlo where he witnesses the triumph of a beautiful blonde American, winning the race. He falls instantly in love and impulsively marries her. The hard part comes next; he has to bring Larita (Biel), his new bride, back to meet his family.

Like many wealthy English families, eccentricity runs through the family like rain through the gutters. Father (Firth) is a veteran of the Great War and who hasn’t been the same since he returned home, taking a slight detour through Europe to do so. Sister Hilda (Nixon) is a busybody who dwells on morbid news clippings and has a vindictive streak a mile wide. Sister Marion (Parkinson) is searching for a husband with a desperation that borders on hysteria and has her eye on Phillip Hurst (Brassington), the son of Lord Hurst (Torrens). Phillip, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with her. Finally, there’s Mother (Thomas), an icy woman with a sharp tongue and a heart of solid steel. She runs the family with an iron hand and even Father steps aside for her when she’s in one of her moods.

Larita couldn’t have come at a worse time. They are entering a busy social season, and the family estate is crumbling into disrepair. There is an odd disconnect with John’s father, which is becoming more and more pronounced. And she’s running into Mother at her most venomous.

Things aren’t going well but it’s not for Larita’s lack of trying. At first she tries to be friendly and respectful but Mother’s sharp barbs put an end to that. Eventually it settles into a bitter cold war with the two daughters taking Mother’s side and Father, who has a great admiration for all things American, on Larita’s. When her past threatens to catch up with her, the staid life of the manor threatens to explode.

This is based on a 1924 Noel Coward play. It has been made into a movie at least once, by none other than Alfred Hitchcock(!) back in 1928. This time, the director is Elliott, best known for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This is his first feature in nine years and he is aided by the auspices of Ealing Studios in England, one of the most famous in all the UK. They are well-known for their drawing room comedies of the sort that Coward excelled at, and this is right down their alley.

Of course, this isn’t the play that Coward wrote. Writers Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins have taken some liberties with the original material – Elliott himself admits on the commentary track that the script is about “30% Coward” – and it seemed to me that the movie was at its weakest when it departed from the original material.

Elliott at least brought together a magnificent cast, but the surprise is Biel. I’ve always thought her more of a pretty face than as a strong actress, but she does very well with the material she has to work with which makes me wonder that if she were getting more challenging roles she wouldn’t be getting more respect as an actress. I hope she is given some based on her performance here; she plays a woman who is somewhat trapped by the strictures of her time but has a great deal of inner strength and an independent spirit. She has survived some of the most awful events you can imagine and is still able to keep her heart open despite that. Not Oscar-winning material mind you, but a superior performance nonetheless.

And the cast she has behind her! Firth is an Oscar-nominated actor just beginning to get the kind of notice that an actor who has delivered consistently strong performances should be bestowed. He gives a layered performance as a man haunted by horrors thee and me could not even begin to conceive of and walks through life with the ghosts of those horrors haunting him. Not many could pull it off as effectively as Firth does here.

Finally there’s Thomas who plays the bitchy mom. This could easily be a part that spirals into shrillness but Thomas plays the mother with dignity and decorum. She’s as British as you can get and has a burden of her own that she bears, keeping hidden with the typical stiff upper lip of the wealthy class. In a time when image was everything, she is terrified of the façade crumbling and the real face of the family showing up. Thomas makes an unsympathetic character largely identifiable to most of us.

Noel Coward is definitely an acquired taste but it is one I have learned to appreciate. It’s nice to watch a comedy once in awhile that doesn’t have to do with high school students trying to get laid, or adult losers trying to get laid, or stoners trying to get stoned…and laid. Coward had a flair for the English language and as someone who uses it as a tool I can appreciate and admire his gift. This wasn’t his best play to begin with, and it has been adapted for the screen nearly beyond recognition, but 30% Noel Coward is better than 100% most anyone else.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a nice change of pace from modern comedies. Jessica Biel shows some acting chops. Fine supporting cast helps elevate the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Film strays from the original Noel Coward material quite a bit and is at its weakest when it does.

FAMILY VALUES: It’s a little bit sexy and there is smoking throughout as was common during the era; however it might be a bit more sophisticated than the average youngster would be into so make this part of your adult post-kids bedtime viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the end credits, all the musicians playing on the track are introduced as they would be from a bandstand during a live performance.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Stone Angel