The Importance Of Being Earnest

The Importance Of Being Earnest

***

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Don't touch Oscar. If you do, he crumbles.

By opening up Wilde's most famous play and adding fanciful dream sequences, Oliver Parker exposes it as a silly conceit. It fits the theatre perfectly, so that plot twists can't wriggle out into the open air and be exposed for what they are - foolish. Contained within the confines of a stage, these characters have life and meaning. Free on the screen, they don't know what to do with themselves.

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It's all about love and identity. It's also about snobbery amongst the cucumber sandwiches. Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) doesn't know who he is. He lives in a stately home, surrounded by thousands of acres in Hertfordshire, with a town house and an alter ego. When in London, frequenting the music halls, he calls himself Earnest, Jack's disreputable brother. In fact, as a baby, he was discovered in a Gladstone bag in the left luggage office at Victoria station and adopted by a kindly couple from the landed gentry.

He's in love with Gwendolen (Frances O'Connor), daughter of Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench), whose nephew is Jack's friend, Algy (Rupert Everett), an impoverished charmer, with caddish tendencies. Jack's ward is the delectable 18-year-old Cecily (Reese Witherspoon), who stays in the country, being tutored by a governess (Anna Massie), while fantasising about knights in shining armour.

Lady B doesn't think Jack posh enough to marry her daughter. Gwendolen is in love with Earnest, but hates the name Jack. Algy turns up at the stately home, pretending to be Earnest, and falls for Cecily. She feels the same about him, even though they have only just met, but also harbours a quirky infatuation with the name Earnest. She wouldn't contemplate an Algy as a romantic partner.

You could call it frothy, or you could call it frivolous. What makes the play is the writing and the timing. Combine the two, with an excellent cast, and it's glorious entertainment. On film, the witty lines are dissipated by the scale of things. Parker can't get enough gold leaf or sumptuous interiors. Jack's house is fit for a Duke. Lawns stretch forever. Staircases are as wide as rivers. In Gosford Park, you believed that people lived there. Not at Jack's place. Every cushion, every chair, has been renovated. Even Algy's tennis racquet looks brand new.

Firth and Witherspoon stand out a mile. Dench is careful not to caricature Edith Evans, with her "A hand bag!!!" Tom Wilkinson gives an inspired cameo as the local vicar. But the real disappointment is Everett, who gives a lazy performance, as if he knows he can do this backwards and simply can't be bothered. Also, he's beginning to resemble a basset hound.

The energy and style of those early Another Country years has gone. Algy is more than Bertie Wooster's ancestor. He's dissolute and dangerous, because you can't deny him anything. Everett plays him as a sponger, which means that Witherspoon has to act her socks off to make their liaison look half believable.

Reviewed on: 16 Aug 2002
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Wilde's tale of love and identity gets saddled with unfortunate dream sequences.
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Director: Oliver Parker

Writer: Oliver Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde

Starring: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O'Connor, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Anna Massey

Year: 2002

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK/US

Festivals:

EIFF 2002

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