Jack Wirthing (Colin Firth) lives a responsible country life managing his finances and keeping a watchful eye on his ward, Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon). But, when he is visiting the city, he is, literally, a different person. Posing as Jack's brother Ernest he cavorts around town with his ne'er do well friend Algernon Montcrieff (Rupert Everett) and lives the life that Jack can't. Love enters the picture and "Ernest" falls for and asks to wed modern-thinking Gwendolen (Frances O'Connor), but her mother, Lady Bracknell (Dame Judi Dench), rejects Jack/Ernest because he has not social status. When Jack hatches a plan to turn things around, Algy throws a wrench into the works when he arrives in the country posing as Ernest, and things get confused, indeed, in the film creation of Oscar Wilde's wild and wacky play, "The Importance of Being Earnest"
Director/writer Oliver Parker puts his imprint on this big screen creation of the wonderfully witty Wilde comedy of manners and romance. Comparison to the terrific 1952 Anthony Asquith film version of the play will be made but this modern effort stands by itself as a celluloid recreation of the witty author's possibly best-known work. I loved the 50's version and had less than high hopes for Parker's cut at it. I was pleased to find that the helmer has kept the spirit, charm and humor of the Wilde play.
Casting of all characters, even in the smallest role, is done with precision and good understanding of the play. Colin Firth has the quiet reserve to give Jack a well-mannered appearance, but is a bit of the rogue when he plays at being Ernest who has a total disregard for propriety and wouldn't dream of paying a dinner tab at the best restaurants in London. Rupert Everett was born to play Algernon. Algy is witty, droll, charismatic and fiscally irresponsible and sees a romantic alliance with Jack's ward, Cecily, as a chance to get on easy street,
The ladies are well played by Witherspoon and O'Connor. Both put a modern spin on their very liberal, romance-minded Victorian characters, but contrast each other like the city mouse and the country mouse. Reese Witherspoon joins the growing list of American thesps playing English characters in English films and, by force of her sunny personality, pulls it off equitably. Frances O'Connor has an capable directness that does rem Joan Greenwood's haughty, self-assured Gwendolen from the earlier movie. Dame Judi is marvelous as the overbearing arbiter of taste in English society, but is a lady with a secret past of her own.
Utilizing a little known four-act version of the Wilde play, Parker fleshes out the side story between Cecily's aging tutor, Miss Prism (Anna Massey) and the local rector, Rev. Canon Chasuble (Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson). This little romance is handled in a sweet, touching manner that adds a mature dimension to the drawing room tale of love, passion and deception. Miss P is a catalyst in the story and bringing her character out helps in making "The Importance of Being Earnest" stand by itself. Massey and Wilkinson create a sweet and touching sunset romance and make it believable and lovely. Edward Fox, given little more than a cameo appearance as Algy's acerbic, pragmatic gentleman's gentleman, Lane, shines out in a wonderfully funny little perf.
Oliver Parker's adaptation of the Wilde play carries the author's great bon mots from start to finish. For instance, when Lady Brecknell interviews Ernest/Jack about his suitability for marriage to Gwendolen and the question of his age (35 years) she states, "London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years." The tongue-in-cheek wit of Oscar Wilde is music to the ears and, over a century after first being put to print, is still current, funny and thoroughly modern. Even knowing how the story ends, I was looking forward to how Parker and company would wrap things out.
Techs, from camera to costume, are outstanding. Lensing by Tony Pierce-Roberts helps to expand the stage bound play to the big screen and captures both the inside shoots of the city with the openness of the countryside. The perfection of an English summer is depicted beautifully and is used to great effect. Costuming, by Maurizio Millenotti, is, in a word, magnificent, depicting the epitome of the Victorian era's dress codes for the rich and famous. Production design, particularly Cecily's flights of romantic fancy, are lushly detailed and help open things up from stage to screen.
It is a real treat to see the work of the great Oscar Wilde brought to the screen in a well-made rendition of a truly funny play. The intelligence of Wilde's writing and his understanding of the human mind is something to behold. Oliver Parker brings the wit's work to the screen in a solidly rendered creation. I give it a B.
Jack Worthing (Colin Firth, "Bridget Jones's Diary") enjoys life in the country with his charge Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon, "Legally Blonde"), conveniently using an alter-ego brother Earnest to escape into London and become engaged to the aristocratic Gwendolen Fairfax (Frances O'Connor, "A.I."). His charming cad of a friend, Algy Moncrieff (Rupert Everett, "An Ideal Husband"), borrows Earnest as well to propose to Cecily. When the two ladies discover their engagement to the 'same' man and Gwendolen's mother Lady Bracknell opposes Earnest's lack of background, there's something to be said for "The Importance of Being Earnest."
This is not your mother's "Importance of Being Earnest." Writer/director Oliver Parker, who most recently adapted Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" for the screen, takes a more playful approach with "Earnest," injecting fantasy sequences, tattoo parlors, dance hall girls, hot air balloon entrances and the horseless carriage into the mix. Once the crossover plot lines have been laid down, however, Parker cannot sustain the buoyant energy level of the film's city beginnings into its country conclusion.
Once again, Parker has assembled a terrific cast, headlined by Everett and featuring an American actress. Everett was seemingly born to play Wilde - he fits this role as Helena Bonham Carter does a corset. Everett brings a lanky, manipulative charm to the role. The manipulativeness of the bounder character is beautifully played against Firth's fussy Worthy, who is played time and time again to his increasingly mounting frustration. Meanwhile, Moncrieff's butler Lane (brilliantly portrayed by Edward Fox) can deflate his master's bluster with a sotto voce aside.
Francis O'Connor's Gwendolen is a lusty lady determined to have her way. O'Connor brings a breathiness to her line readings that recall the great Joan Greenwood in the 1952 edition of the film, but her interpretation of the character is more businesslike. O'Connor is hilarious determinedly piloting her horseless carriage out to her lover's estate. Witherspoon captures the fresh-faced, innocent Cecily whose mind is always occupied by romantic Arthurian fantasies. Her English accent is nicely understated, her creased brow an indication of the seriousness with which she takes her romantic notions. Dame Judi Dench reprises her stage role of Aunt Augusta and takes command of Wilde's dialogue with imperious hilarity. The tiny actress, costumed in exploding froufrou by Maruizio Millenotti, believably makes grown men tremble. The cast is rounded out by Tom Wilkinson ("In the Bedroom") as Dr. Chasuble who is sweet on Cecily's governess Miss Prism (Anna Massey).
Parker's modernization of the Wilde play may strike some as irreverent, but I'm sure the author would have smiled upon it. His film has the feel of a 1960s period piece, like "Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies," from the literal chase scene which he opens the film with (Moncrieff escaping creditors via London alleys) to his liberal use of ragtime. Parker also beefed up the Chasuble/Prism romance from a 4th act in an earlier revision of Wilde's play, further promoting the play's Shakespearean roots with Massey and Wilkinson recalling the Geraldine McEwan/Richard Briers pairing in Branaugh's "Love's Labour's Lost."
Early on, Jack asserts that "When one is in town, one amuses oneself. When one is in the country, one amuses other people." The spirit of Wilde's line holds true to the play as well. While proceedings are still quite amusing in the film's third, country act (never more so than when Moncrieff provokes Jack over a tray of muffins), things also become more earnest, as the lads attempt to unruffle their respective ladies' agitated feathers and a birthright mystery is solved (complete with baby-eye-view camerawork).
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