The Importance Of Being Earnest

2002, Movie, PG, 98 mins


As an encore to his popular 1999 adaptation of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, director Oliver Parker takes on the Irish playwright's best-known play, a self-consciously trivial affair about two best friends who pretend to be an imaginary wastrel named Ernest. Puritanical John Worthing (Colin Firth) lives a sober life on his Shropshire estate with his pretty young ward, Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon), and her prim governess, Miss Prism (Anna Massey). Every few weeks, "Jack" makes his way to London to check up on Ernest, his tragically dissipated younger brother. Ernest, of course, doesn't really exist: He's just a pretext that allows "Jack" to escape his dull country life and, as Ernest, plunge into London's high life, whooping it up in dancehalls and never, ever paying his bill at the Savoy. But Jack comes to town mainly to woo his beloved Gwendolen Fairfax (Frances O'Connor), the worldly daughter of imperious Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench) and cousin of his best friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett). Jack has decided to propose, but there's a problem: He hasn't the parentage necessary to marry any daughter of Lady Bracknell. In fact, Jack has no known parentage at all — he was found in a handbag in Victoria Station. "Algy," meanwhile, has heard enough about Cecily to have his curiosity piqued, and sneaks off to Shropshire, impersonating Ernest to gain admittance. (Cecily, for her part, has heard enough about her guardian's reprobate younger brother to have her own passions stirred.) But Algy is unaware that Jack, tired of the game, is on his way home with the sad news that his wayward sibling has suddenly died, with a lovesick Gwendolen — who only knows Jack as Ernest — in hot pursuit. In true Wilde fashion, witty confusion reigns, and for all the character's machinations, fate proves the ultimate trickster. Unlike Anthony Asquith, whose exquisite 1952 version could have been lifted directly from the stage, Parker keeps things racing along by rearranging scenes in order to facilitate speed and a frequent change of scenery. He also makes a concession or two to slightly more modern sensibilities (in a display of true devotion, Gwendolen has the name "Ernest" tattooed on her bum) and interjects a number of rather unnecessary fantasy sequences done up in pre-Raphaelite style. With an unflappable air of decadent urbanity, Everett remains a perfect Wildean actor, and a relaxed Firth displays impeccable comic skill. The ever-versatile Witherspoon, meanwhile, is the only non-Brit in Parker's cast, but has no trouble keeping up with her peers. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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