The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)
Directed by Oliver Parker

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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In late Victorian England, two wealthy friends, Algy (Rupert Everett) and Jack (Colin Firth), both fall in love with women determined to wed only a man named "Ernest." Each of these women, however, believes that the man she loves is named Ernest, since Algy, who loves Jack's ward, Cecily (Reese Witherspoon), presented himself to her as Jack's brother Ernest, whom Jack had previously invented as an excuse to go into London, and Jack, who loves Algy's cousin Gwendolen (Frances O'Connor), introduced himself to her, and to her formidable mother, Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench), as this same imaginary relation. Such lies, naturally, lead to a variety of complications.

Oliver Parker's filmed version of Oscar Wilde's marvelously clever The Importance of Being Earnest is an entertaining but deeply flawed work.

I must concede that I was somewhat disappointed by the liberties the director has taken with the original play. His insertion of a number of slapstick elements, for example, while occasionally successful, usually is not. There are, in fact, moments when he either redirects the humor from Wilde's words to some bit of physical tomfoolery or uses some noise or gesticulation to underline the playwright's witticisms. He does not, on the whole, make his movie richer with such changes.

Perhaps the film's greatest weakness, however, is its inclusion of portrayals of its characters behaving in distractingly anachronistic ways. At different times, characters kiss; a woman has the name "Ernest" tattooed on one of her buttocks; Algy and Jack serenade the women they love while playing a banjo and a piano, and so on and so on. I suppose that the director was trying to make the protagonists more approachable to modern audiences than they would have been had he been more faithful to the play, but, instead, he merely tears the viewer out of Wilde's rarefied world and thereby prevents him from enjoying it.

Whatever its shortcomings, I will concede that the film is frequently entertaining. The director has retained much of Wilde's deliciously witty dialogue, and that is always a delight. The actors all acquit themselves well, and the lavish sets and costumes ensure that the movie is consistently pleasant to look at.

While the original play is, without a doubt, a masterpiece, Parker's film version of it can be intermittently annoying. Nonetheless, even though it is hardly a great accomplishment, since The Importance of Being Earnest does provide the viewer with an opportunity to relish a large part of Wilde's enthralling work, it is still worth seeing.

Review by Keith Allen

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