Importance of Being Earnest, The (United Kingdom/United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The chief pleasure to be found in any version of Oscar Wilde's play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is the dialogue, and Oliver Parker's re-interpretation is no different. All of the great lines are here: "The very essence of romance is uncertainty", "To lose one parent...may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness", "Thirty-five is an attractive age. London is full of women of the highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years", "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his", "Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever." The downside to Wilde's delight in toying with language is that he doesn't pay much attention to details like characterization or plot development. To the degree that these are present, they are afterthoughts, included simply to provide structure.

In the name of modernizing The Importance of Being Earnest, writer/director Parker has taken liberties with the source material. He has cut, pasted, re-arranged, and added. Despite this, however, Earnest remains faithful to the spirit (if not always the letter) of Wilde's text. The advantages and drawbacks are pretty much the same, as well. The story is insubstantial, the characters simply drawn, and the dialogue rich with wit and humor. If you like motion pictures that rely almost exclusively on words, this film will be a godsend. It also helps that the dialogue is recited by actors of talent and charisma. Wilde's lines are not merely spoken; they are relished. Unfortunately, the film lacks the frothy, whimsical tone of another recent Wilde adaptation, An Ideal Husband (also directed by Parker), and, as a result, comes across as occasionally slow and plodding. I enjoyed the film for what it is - a mistaken identity farce - but I didn't leave the theater overly enthused. With this cast, this director, and this source material, I expected to be swept away on a wave of enchantment, but nothing close to that happened.

The story centers around a non-existent man named Ernest Worthing. He is the alter-ego of Jack Worthing (Colin Firth), who uses that name whenever he comes to town so he can act in a reckless manner without having to worry about the consequences. Jack is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax (Frances O'Connor), who would marry him if not for the disapproval of her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench). Lady Bracknell's chief objection to Jack is simple - he doesn't know who his parents are. As a baby, he was found abandoned by a kind man who raised him to adulthood and left him a fortune, an estate, and a ward - pretty Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon). When Jack's city friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett), learns of Cecily's existence, he has a powerful urge to meet the girl. So, "borrowing" Jack's name of Ernest Worthing, he shows up at Jack's country estate, pretending to be the long-lost black sheep of the family. Cecily is delighted, and she and Algernon fall in love. That's when Jack arrives, followed shortly thereafter by Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell. Mistaken identity complications ensue as everyone tries to find, or be, or not be, Ernest.

A tremendous cast partially offsets the film's curiously docile tone. Rupert Everett, who brought equally as much suave charm and devilish charisma to An Ideal Husband, seems entirely at home amidst the barbs of Wilde's words. Colin Firth, who will forever be known as Mr. Darcy (especially since he has played him twice - once in Pride and Prejudice and once in Bridget Jones's Diary), takes on the Jane Austen-less persona of Jack. Frances O'Connor, also an Austen refugee (she was in Mansfield Park), is appealing as Gwendolen. Reese Witherspoon, sporting a British accent that rings true, steps out of contemporary mode and shows little difficulty with a period piece. Tom Wilkinson, lately of In the Bedroom, is the meek reverend Dr. Chasuble. And Judi Dench, who seemingly must be in every Miramax-distributed production, lends her name and authority to the proceedings.

I have learned from Roger Ebert's review of this film that, at the time The Importance of Being Earnest was written, the term "earnest" was synonymous with "gay". Considering Oscar Wilde's sexuality, this is not surprising, but it adds another level to the manner in which the film can be viewed. The Importance of Being Earnest is regarded in some circles as being Wilde's best work. And, while that may not be apparent from this curiously low-key adaptation, one can still appreciate some of what the text has to offer. Nevertheless, while The Importance of Being Earnest offers opportunities for occasional smiles and chuckles, it doesn't give us a reason to be in the theater beyond Wilde's wit and the actors' performances. For some, that may be enough, but for most, I suspect, it isn't.

Importance of Being Earnest, The (United Kingdom/United States, 2002)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2002-05-24
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1