Watching writer-director Oliver Parker’s adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, one could easily think that Oscar Wilde’s play was the forerunner of the modern sitcom, with its abundance of one-liners and its twisty plot built on a series of deceptions and the subsequent avoidance of embarrassment. Wilde subtitled his play “A Trivial Comedy For Serious People” and, not overlooking the implied jab at seriousness and its need for the tonic of triviality, one is tempted to take him at his word. Earnest is certainly his most epigrammatic play, his most quotable and funniest and, on the surface at least, a very light, inconsequential piece. Wilde disguised his more serious intent behind humorous aperçus wherein the thought expressed makes less of an impression than the language which shapes it. Parker, who has opened up the play with a nearly desperate infusion of scene and dialog shifting, encourages a surface reading.
But then so does Wilde, and Parker’s decision to add some cinematic kinetics to the text is less a matter of corruption than emphasizing what’s already there. Even given a more stately presentation, as in the 1952 film version with Michael Redgrave, the slightly veiled insights are going to pile up more quickly than they can be absorbed. For example, the play opens with a volley of witticisms between the two male leads, Jack and Algernon. At one point Jack, peeved that Algernon has read the inscription on his cigarette case, accuses his friend of being “ungentlemanly.” Algernon responds with, “It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.” Jack replies, “I don’t propose to discuss modern culture. It isn’t the sort of thing one discusses in private.”
This comes across as merely flippant banter, but Algie’s comment says that the censorious are uncultured while Jack implies that erudition’s main function is to impress a public and so is pointless in a private discussion. This is a sophisticated observation followed by a cynical one; both are little stabs at the social order palliated by wit. These compacted jibes are constant in the play and whizzing by in performance, and in the service of a complicated comedy of errors they come to seem amiably nonsensical.
But if the language and its dicey meanings are anything but trivial, the plot is aggressively so. Jack (Colin Firth) is only Jack in the country; in the city he takes the identity of an imaginary brother, Ernest. This deception is to keep his city persona of bachelor-about-town separate from his more responsible country self, where he is the guardian of young Cicely (Reese Witherspoon). Unfortunately the woman he loves, Gwendolen (Frances O’Connor), is only willing to return his adoration as long as his name is Ernest. She couldn’t possibly love a Jack, you see. When Jack’s friend, Algernon (Rupert Everett), learns that Cicely is infatuated with the never-seen Ernest, he decides to assume the identity of the bogus brother in order to woo her. From there, it’s only a matter of time before Jack, Algernon, Cicely and Gwendolen find themselves in the same place with both men trying to be Ernest.
Well, it’s a little more complicated than that, but I can never read a description of this play’s plot without my eyes glazing over; I’ve tried to be sparing. I suspect anyway that the most important piece of information one would want from a review of this film is whether or not Reese Witherspoon’s English accent is passable. It is. Everett is a perfect Wilde antihero, languid, detached and amused — while Firth, after a brief spell as a dashing romantic lead, has settled into being a slightly anguished second banana. His role here is a somewhat frothier version of his Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary. O’Connor gives Gwendolen the right mix of cunning and vacuity and only Judi Dench, as the horrid Lady Bracknell, disappoints, going for whispered intensity when oblivious imperiousness would be more apt. Less dramatic verisimilitude and more sense of caricature would have helped.
As for Parker’s embellishments, they seem harmless enough, though one could have done without the insert where Gwendolen gets “Ernest” tattooed on her rear. While purists might object, it helps to keep in mind that Wilde always did want to be amusing, if not quite this breezy.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.