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The Importance of Being Earnest (A Movie Review)

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

The Importance of Being Earnest


Starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O’Connor, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Anna Massey, Edward Fox and Charles Kay.

Screenplay by Oliver Parker.

Directed by Oliver Parker.

Distributed by Miramax Pictures. 97 minutes. Rated PG.

In my opinion, Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest is the greatest stage comedy ever written. But, and this is a big but… it is written specifically for the limited boundaries of the stage. Not that it can’t be filmed, in fact the 1952 film version of the play is a sparse masterpiece. But the reason that film works so well is that the filmmakers respected the source material’s theatrical roots and did not stray from the bare bones structure of the play.

For the new version, writer/director Oliver Parker (who seems to be making a career out of Wilde’s work, he did An Ideal Husband a couple of years ago, can The Picture of Dorian Gray or Salome be far behind?) seems to believe that today’s audiences need visual splendor to and modern sensibilities to make this quaint parlor story visually arresting. (Just the fact that Parker gets the sole screenwriting credit gives one pause.)  Because of this Parker adds all sorts of scenes that Wilde never envisioned, police chases, balloon flights, trips to tattoo parlors, serenades…

In the end, all of Parker’s little trips onto side streets do give the film a nostalgic feel, but they overwhelm the subtle wordsmanship and interplay of Wilde’s brilliant writing. This causes some of the best jokes ever written in the English language to have to struggle to be noticed. And the fact that Parker cut substantial amounts of Wilde’s dialogue to fit in his little flights of fancy… that’s just wrong.

The real shame is the cast is brilliant and up to the material. Rupert Everett and Colin Firth are born to play Algernon and Jack, upper crust scoundrels who both use an imaginary relative named Ernest as an excuse to escape their stiff worlds, Jack portrays Ernest in the city, Algy in the country. Frances O’Connor is also right on as heiress Gwendolyn, a woman who is in love with Jack, but only because his name is Ernest. In an adventurous follow-up to her Legally Blonde breakthrough, Reese Witherspoon does a nice job as Jack’s young charge who falls for Algernon.

Best of all, of course, in the role of the bitter society matron Lady Bracknell is Dame Judi Dench, taking one of greatest comic characters ever and making it her own. It’s too bad that such fine acting and perfect source material had to be diluted just because the director didn’t trust the audiences’ attention spans.  (6/02)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright © 2002 All rights reserved. Posted: June 21, 2002.

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