The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG for mild sensuality
Running Time: 97 min.

Cast: Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Frances O'Conner, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson
Oliver Parker
Screenplay: Oliver Parker (based on the play by Oscar Wilde)
Review published November 17, 2002

Oscar Wilde's classic farce has seen its share of incarnations in film adaptations over the years, and this one is as good as any.  Films based on classic plays, such as those by Shakespeare, are always a bit hard to review, as you end up having to judge how well the film captures the essence of the play into another medium, and not whether or not the writing is good since, of course, the writing is as good as can be.  Oliver Parker's (An Ideal Husband, Othello) vision of Wilde takes a bit of artistic license in its alterations of the play, mostly adding a few sight gags, and almost all of them contribute to making the film better.  Unlike many other play adaptations, this one doesn't feel the least bit stagy, not too far removed from the sort of movies Merchant Ivory excels at.  Lush cinematography, beautiful costumes, and a cast of excellent actors bring Wilde's play to life, making this a pleasant diversion for even those unfamiliar with the original work.

The "Earnest" (or Ernest) alluded to in the title is a complete fabrication, used by man of the country, Jack Worthing (Firth, Londinium), as an excuse to go to the city to see his misbehaving brother.  Once he is in the city, he becomes Ernest himself, using the alias to become someone he isn't used to being, allowing him the freedom to do as he pleases.  Jack (as Ernest) is in love with Gwendolen (O'Connor, AI), but her mother, Lady Bracknell (Dench, The World is Not Enough), disapproves of Jack, mostly because he doesn't know who his birth parents are, being abandoned in a handbag at a railway station as a baby.  He was adopted into a rich estate, which he now controls, along with a ward, Cecily (Witherspoon, Legally Blonde), just turning eighteen and betrothed to the fictitious Ernest, through a series of correspondence letters.  Jack's best friend Algy (Everett, My Best Friend's Wedding) decides to visit his estate, pretending to be Ernest, and tries to get Cecily into an affair with him.  Gwendolen also decides to pay a visit, and with two Ernests running around, and neither of them true, it's a difficult chore for the two conniving men to keep their stories straight.

There's a lot of been-there-done-that involved with any oft-told tale, so the freshness factor isn't altogether high.  Also, some of the purists out there may not care for Wilde's play being interpolated as much as Parker does, as he is liberal in his alterations of the play for purposes of better cinematic appeal, adding a bit of slapstick to the witticisms.  However, most viewers probably won't mind, as Wilde's amazing gift for humor is still prevalent at the core, and this is as likeable a cast of actors as one could hope for in a well-crafted farce. 

Even if you're so familiar with the play as to be bored having to watch it again, the costumes and lush locales are almost enough to make the film enjoyable just from an eye-candy standpoint.  If you haven't seen the play in a while, or are completely unfamiliar, The Importance of Being Earnest gets a solid recommendation for good tongue-in-cheek comedy from the old school.

Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo