Importance of Being Earnest, The (2002)

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Review byMatthew Turner9/06/2002

Two out of Five stars
Running time: 97 mins

Unsatisfactory adaptation that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is and is certain to upset the purists.

British director Oliver Parker has a proven track record in adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s plays – he was behind 1999’s competent adaptation of An Ideal Husband, also starring Rupert Everett.

Why, then, with one successful ‘straight’ adaptation behind him, he felt compelled to mess around so comprehensively with what is arguably Wilde’s best (certainly his best-known) play is a complete mystery, and one that isn’t helped by some severe miscasting.

Colin Firth plays Jack, a man with two identities. In the country, he is Jack, and the respected guardian of his ward, Cecily (Reese Witherspoon). In town, he is Ernest, where he lives the life of a bachelor and is best friends with Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett).

However, when he falls in love with Gwendolen (Frances O’Connor) and wants to propose, he finds he has some explaining to do to Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench), regarding his background. Meanwhile, Algy rumbles Jack’s country-identity and turns up unannounced, pretending to be Jack’s wayward “cousin” Ernest, where he falls instantly in love with Cecily…

Severe Liberties

The main problem with Parker’s adaptation is that he’s taken a handful of pretty severe liberties with the text and seems to be going all out to incite the wrath of Wilde purists everywhere. Mostly, these take the form of flashbacks, inserts and fantasy sequences, so, for example, Cecily constantly imagines herself tied to a tree and being rescued by a knight in shining armour, while Lady Bracknell flashes back to a time when she was a common chorus girl who got herself pregnant in order to marry a lord.

To be fair, a couple of the changes work – for example, Gwendolen getting Ernest’s name tattooed on her backside (“The name Ernest is burned into my flesh”), and the amusing spectacle of Firth and Everett singing a duet (stick around for the end credits for more of this). Visually, the film has some nice moments too, particularly Everett’s arrival in the country by hot air balloon.

A Haaand-Baaag?

However, where it all goes wrong is that these ‘updates’ happen at the expense of the dialogue itself and with Wilde’s plays, the dialogue is everything. What’s worse is that some of the lines that should be played for laughs are either completely missing (for example, the whole “cucumber sandwiches” bit at the beginning) or misread so that the laughs don’t happen. Judi Dench doesn’t even give the famous “A haaand-baaag?!?” line the emphasis it deserves. In addition, the ending is messed with in a big way that serves no purpose whatsoever.

On top of this, there are some irritating continuity errors that only add to the haphazard feel of the whole enterprise. Indeed, the overall impression is of the director waving his arms and shouting ‘Look at me! See what I did there? Aren’t I clever?’ and the audience replying with A Very Hard Stare and total silence.

Mixed Baaag?

Acting-wise, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Firth probably comes off best, but he’s excellent at playing stiff, humourless characters anyway. Less successful is Everett – he’s much too old to play Algy and you never for one moment believe that he could fall for Reese Witherspoon’s Cecily. It doesn’t help that Firth and Everett are too similar, physically, either.

As for Witherspoon, she does a good job on the English accent, but she’s miscast - she’s much too intelligent and it shows. O’Connor, on the other hand, is pretty good as Gwendolen, though her part is over-done to the point where she seems out of place in the film. Finally, Judi Dench certainly looks the part, but inexplicably misses the opportunity to make something special out of it.

In short, the overall feeling is one of disappointment and it’s infuriating that Parker didn’t trust the source material to stand on its own. It’s just about worth watching for the odd moment, but you’d be much better off trying to track down the classic 1952 version with Michael Redgrave and the delectable Joan Greenwood.

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Content updated: 17/02/2020 11:22

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