The Importance of Being Earnest

For a playwright who was imprisoned for two years for the "gross indecency" of being homosexual, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was a pretty funny guy. Earnest is rightly considered to be the peak of Wilde's wit, and the 1952 film version, with an indelible performance by Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, deserves landmark status. So why remake it? From the looks of this freewheeling, loose-limbed take on Earnest, writer-director Oliver Parker, who also filmed Wilde's An Ideal Husband, wanted to blow the dust off, air the thing out and take a few cheeky liberties.

Which is fine — mostly. Dame Judi Dench splendidly fills in for Dame Edith with her own less madcap but equally hilarious take on Lady Bracknell, a woman who will not endure trickery. And yet here we have Algy (Rupert Everett), who loves Cecily (Reese Witherspoon), and his friend Jack (Colin Firth), who loves Gwendolin (Frances O'Connor), both pretending to be the nonexistent Ernest? Don't ask why. The plot is just an excuse on which to hang Wilde's bons mots. Everett, whose scenes with Firth are a droll delight, nails every sly laugh. And Witherspoon adds her own legally blond American sparkle to this British party. Parker pushes a bit — who knew Earnest had a love duet sung by Algy and Jack? — but he proves this vintage bubbly hasn't lost its fizz.

From The Archives Issue 897: June 6, 2002
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