Movie review, 'The Importance of Being Earnest'

It remains one of the tragedies of the English language that Oscar Wilde didn't leave us with more plays.

Shortly after the 1895 London premiere of Wilde's stage masterwork, "The Importance of Being Earnest," the 40-year-old wordsmith found himself in prison for being unfashionably homosexual in Victorian England. He was dead five years later, a broken writer suffering ill health after two years in poor prison conditions.

"Earnest" represented Wilde at the height of his literary powers, his rapier wit carving away moral hypocrisies while still leaving hope for love in otherwise absurd human relationships. Director and screenwriter Oliver Parker seems to understand this and harnesses the raw genius and comedy of "The Importance of Being Earnest" through a cinematic parliament of fine performances. At the same time, Parker adds to works that require little ornamentation.

Much like Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" (previously adapted by Parker), "Earnest" embraces the comedic possibilities of romance attempting to take flight in London's tiny social cage. But Jack (Colin Firth of "Bridget Jones's Diary") has found a way through the bars. A well-to-do gentleman of the country, Jack escapes his mundane manor and spirited young ward, Cecily (Reese Witherspoon), by frequenting London under the pretext of looking after his black-sheep brother, Ernest. Jack, of course, is Ernest in the city and Jack in the country - until he falls in love as Ernest with young Gwendolen (Frances O'Connor), whose overprotective aunt, Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench), won't hear of marriage until the matter of his mystery heritage comes to light. Jack himself is no help - having no memory of being left in a railway station's cloakroom, tucked inside a baby-sized satchel. Of even less help is Jack's city friend and Lady Bracknell's nephew, Algy (Rupert Everett), a master of duality himself, who complicates matters by showing up at Jack's country estate posing as Ernest.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" reteams Parker with Everett, who led 1999's "An Ideal Husband." Here, Everett offers flashes of Algy unhinged as the flamboyant playboy, sick in love with Jack's young ward. He's almost garishly cartoony in Algy's manic mischief - eyes bugging out and smile stretched beyond a sneer as Jack rings his neck for complicating his overtures of marriage. Luckily, Firth adds stability and genuine charm not only to the film but to the role of Jack and his strained relationship with Algy. Nothing endears the sexes to one another as grace under fire, and Firth never wilts - even under the glare of Dench's powerhouse Lady Bracknell.

In "Husband," Parker streamlined Wilde's word orgies, exercising restraint after rewriting Shakespeare in much of his "Othello," starring Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Fishburne. In "Earnest," Parker delivers a few inspired additions to the play but staples on a fantasy element to Cecily's daydreams, putting Everett on a white horse and in shining armor in between his scheming and prancing. Other than daydreaming, Witherspoon doesn't have much to do and spends the film over-pronouncing her dialogue in an English accent. All of this subtracts from Jack, whose situation provides the core conflict and velocity of the story. While it's easy to understand Parker's move to make the movie adaptation more of an ensemble piece, Jack remains the ensemble lead. Besides, Wilde's sparkling dialogue comes through best when unadorned, and Parker's additions often play like lace curtains on a stained-glass window.

Still, the actors amplify Wilde's sense of timing and satire. "The Importance of Being Earnest" resonates and inspires rapid-fire bouts of laughter, perhaps even a few giggles from the author himself, whom posterity has rewarded the last laugh.

"The Importance of Being Earnest"
2 1/2 stars

Directed by Oliver Parker; screenplay by Oliver Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde; photographed by Tony Pierce-Roberts; edited by Guy Bensley; production design by Luciana Arrighi; produced by Barnaby Thompson. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, May 24. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: PG (mild sensuality).
Algy - Rupert Everett
Jack - Colin Firth
Gwendolen - Frances O'Connor
Cecily - Reese Witherspoon Lady Bracknell - Judi Dench

Robert K. Elder is a Chicago Tribune Staff Writer.

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