Since Oliver Parker so successfully directed and adapted Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" to the screen in 1999, there was every reason to hope that he would do the same with "The Importance of Being Earnest." But this time he chose not to stick with the visual elegance and crisp, taut direction that worked so well the first time around, taking a freer and easier approach that's at odds with Wilde's epigrammatic dialogue and tight construction.
After a steady start, this "Earnest" commences losing energy and pace, so crucial to keeping Wilde alive, and the film tends to meander until it begins to build tension again for its hilariously intricate denouement.
In short, Parker's larky approach too often jars with the precision of the material, a feeling reinforced by Charlie Mole's score, which evokes 1940s swing music that, while pleasant and lively in itself, has no connection with an 1895 comedy. The result is a film " that is at best highly uneven and perversely at odds with itself. Luckily, Wilde's delicious sense of absurdity and peerlessly witty dialogue are pretty indestructible, and "Earnest" itself remains a peerless comedy of manners.
Rupert Everett is Algernon Moncrieff, the foppish, chronically but imperturbably insolvent man about London, and Colin Firth is his best friend, John Worthing, whose decision to call himself Ernest in town and Jack in the country, the better to facilitate his moving between high society and low life, triggers the plot's myriad complications.
Problems multiply when the name Ernest becomes so crucial to the attraction Gwendolen Fairfax (Frances O'Connor) feels for Jack--and also in the way Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon) responds to Algy, who has also appropriated the name Ernest for himself.
Judi Dench has some of Wilde's funniest lines as the very grand, obtuse and frivolous Lady Bracknell, who at one point declares, "The chin a little higher, dear. Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present." It's the kind of pronouncement that fashion arbiter Diana Vreeland would make--but with a deliberate sense of outrageousness.
The entire cast is enjoyable but Anna Massey as Cecily's tutor, Miss Prism, and Tom Wilkinson as Reverend Chasuble, who love each other from afar, capture the delicious spirit of Wildean foolishness most fully.
Not surprisingly, there are some glorious sets and costumes--Lady Bracknell's London mansion is but a tad less grand than Buckingham Palace--but this "Importance of Being Earnest" is not as glorious as it should be.
MPAA-rated: PG, for mild sensuality. Times guidelines. Sophisticated family fare.
'The Importance of Being Earnest'
Colin Firth...John (Jack) Worthing
Reese Witherspoon...Cecily Cardew
Dame Judi Dench...Lady Bracknell
Anna Massey...Miss Prism
Tom Wilkinson...Rev. Canon
A Miramax Films and Ealing Studios presentation in association with Film Council and Newmarket Capital Group of a Fragile Film. Writer-director Oliver Parker. Based on the play by Oscar Wilde. Producer Barnaby Thompson. Co-producer David Brown. Executive producer Uri Fruchtmann. Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts. Editor Guy Bensley. Music Charlie Mole. Costumes Mauriizio Millenotti. Make-up & hair designer Peter King. Production designer Luciana Arrighi. Set decorator Ian Whittaker. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
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