- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

Oliver Parker's 1999 revamp of the Oscar Wilde play "An Ideal Husband" turned out so well that one expected something astute and delightful when the director turned his attention to the most famous play in the Wilde inventory, "The Importance of Being Earnest."

However, his version of "Earnest" becomes a textbook example of what can happen if you refuse to let well enough alone.

A new movie version of this peerlessly sneaky, nonsensical romantic farce certainly was overdue. Anthony Asquith's film of 1952 still had no competitors. One lifetime may not be sufficient to encounter a Lady Bracknell as awesome as Edith Evans' magnificent battle-ax or a Gwendolen as smugly enchanting and vocally distinctive as Joan Greenwood's purring snob.

Nevertheless, the idea of seeing a new troupe try its luck became more appealing as the original film approached a 50th anniversary. Rupert Everett, a diffident tower of strength in "An Ideal Husband," portrays Algernon Moncrieff.

Algy is the charming society wastrel and sponger who poses as the notorious, nonexistent brother of his pal Jack Worthing, an eligible bachelor who values a facade of respectability and adores Algy's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax.

Jack has a starry-eyed ward named Cecily Cardew, who becomes intrigued by stories of the apocryphal brother, Ernest. When Algy shows up at Jack's country home in Hertfordshire purporting to be Ernest, Cecily's romantic expectations are confirmed and the infatuation is mutual. The arrival of Gwendolen and her mother, Lady Bracknell, complicates Jack and Algy's deception, but solutions are found that leave both love matches in a state of good repair.

Colin Firth plays Jack, with Frances O'Connor as Gwendolen, Reese Witherspoon as Cecily and Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell. The middle-aged match of Rev. Chausible and Miss Prism, who have custody of Cecily's welfare during Jack's frequent trips to London, are played by Tom Wilkinson and Anna Massey, perhaps the happiest departure from the 1952 cast. Miss Massey's sweet fragility provides a wistful contrast to the goodly, portly Prism of the inimitable Margaret Rutherford.

I think my fondness for the 1952 movie has little to do with the feeling of being let down by this one. If anything, the new edition might seem incoherent without a vivid recollection of its predecessor. Mr. Parker often bends over backward to avoid any resemblance.

Mr. Asquith kept the earlier film within compact theatrical settings. Mr. Parker opens his version with a vengeance, starting with images of Algy on the run from creditors in shadowy London streets and alleys. The first-act scenes that usually unfold in Algy's flat are now scattered around town: Jack and Algy encounter each other at a music hall and a fashionable casino-cum-brothel, where everything they have to say about Gwendolen and Cecily can be overheard easily by lounging prostitutes.

Algy travels to the country in a hot-air balloon. Cecily fantasizes about Ernest in medieval dream sequences whose pre-Raphaelite trappings seem to bleed into the "present" of 1895. Both Mr. Everett and Miss Witherspoon have been rouged so severely that you wonder if makeup designer Peter King has gone a tad berserk. Mr. King's credits have included "Quills," "The Velvet Goldmine" and "The Lord of the Rings," so it's possible that he picked up the wrong makeup kit.

Mr. Parker expands the text slightly with restorations from an earlier four-act version of the play, eventually trimmed by Wilde to the standard three-act version. The general intention to be expansive and playful and break with tradition would seem easier to defend if the director were more selective. He ends up going overboard while getting prankish with "The Importance of Being Earnest."

For instance, the director bungles a superfluous brainstorm: a flashback sequence told from the point of view of Miss Prism's notorious lost handbag.

OK, let's play along with Lady Bracknell's subjecting all of Gwendolen's suitors to mug shots. If Gwendolen at the tattoo parlor is too uproarious to resist, maybe sacrifice the girls smoking or having a tug of war over the muffin tray. Or, if the muffin tray seems indispensable, cut the mud-splattering gag during a horseback-riding interlude. This "Earnest" can barely keeps its head above water in a swamp of ribaldry.

While Mr. Parker chases about, fomenting these short-winded slapstick rumpuses, the text goes spongy and diffuse.

He also doesn't protect the play from hindsight of an unflattering kind. The sex scandals that eventually ruined Wilde's career and life surfaced during the original London production of the play. Indeed, "Earnest" closed prematurely because of the uproar caused by revelations of the author's double life with Lord Alfred Douglas. The deceptions that appear so amusing in "Earnest" can acquire a sinister, melancholy connotation if linked too closely to the deceptions that Wilde himself endeavored to practice and sustain.


**

TITLE: "The Importance of Being Earnest"

RATING: PG (Fleeting allusions to Victorian vice and corruption within a mostly farcical context)

CREDITS: Directed by Oliver Parker. Screenplay by Mr. Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde. Cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts. Production design by Luciana Arrighi.

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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