starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench
screenplay by Oliver Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde
directed by Oliver Parker
by Walter Chaw In the always-risky practice of adaptating theatre for the silver screen, the first instinct usually has something to do with "expanding" a play by providing the characters backstory, followed fast by moving some of the dialogue into a different environment and/or pulling the source out of time to "modernize" it or to provide new resonance for a politicized piece. Richard Loncraine's Richard III and Julie Taymor's Titus are examples of affected adaptations that work; Michael Cacoyannis's The Cherry Orchard and Oliver Parker's The Importance of Being Earnest are examples that do not.
Parker's Earnest takes the bare essence of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece and crafts a screwball changeling of a thing more interested in "cute" than "cutting." The film bleaches the bite of Wilde's treatise on artifice and social hypocrisy, squandering its source's carefully metered perfection in favour of chamber farce and even, in one embarrassing sequence, vaudeville. Perhaps caught up in today's revisionist zeitgeist, Parker's most cunning contribution to the satirical possibilities of the play is the fact that its shortcomings comment eloquently on the malignant tumours afflicting our body of culture as much as Wilde's play's exploded the dissolute ironies of his.
The story by now should be well known: Jack (Colin Firth) creates a fake brother named "Earnest," whom he impersonates during his visits to the city, while his best friend--a cad--Algernon (Rupert Everett) creates a fake friend named Bunbury whom he 'visits' to avoid unpleasant social engagements. In the country, Jack is the guardian of moony Cecily (Reese Witherspoon), the orphaned daughter of Jack's guardian--Jack having been discovered as an infant abandoned in a handbag in a train station cloakroom. Jack loves Gwendolyn (Frances O'Connor); Gwendolyn loves the idea of marrying a man named "Earnest." Complicating things, Algernon visits Jack in the country, pretending to be Earnest and wooing Cecily--who also loves the idea of marrying a man named "Earnest."
Parker predicates his approach to the carefully timed Wilde with the insipid tableau vivants favoured by Michael Hoffman's recent A Midsummer Night's Dream. Like that picture, this Earnest suffers from what appears to be a general misunderstanding of the source material's thrust, and a particular mishandling of the rhythms that distinguished it. Parker robs the piece of its careful articulation, managing to present the ridiculous Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench) as a creature self-aware while jarring a perfectly written exchange involving muffins out of true with a restless camera and injudicious editing. These two flubs are indicative of the greater malady of The Importance of Being Earnest--that is, bad direction. The picture is occasionally so painful that only those unfamiliar with the play will probably enjoy this iteration of it.
In stripping the play of its intelligence and satirical edge, Parker's The Importance of Being Earnest plays to the perhaps imagined (perhaps not) deficiencies of the modern arthouse audience. It gives the illusion of a classic brought to life to appeal to the nouvelle educated who have either neglected to study the piece or demonstrated no understanding of it until Parker revealed it to be a broad (and very, very safe) slapstick romantic farce. The niftiest trick perpetrated by The Importance of Being Earnest is the alchemical transmogrification of Wilde into Austen--and a Hollywood-ized Austen at that. When, late in the game, Parker ham-fists Bracknell's hypocrisy with a flashback to her days as a saloon girl and whore, you suddenly know all you need to know. Originally published: May 31, 2002.