The Importance of Being Earnest
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.
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 parlour 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
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August 26, 2021.