(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