Importance of Being Earnest, The

The Importance of Being Earnest (U)

REALLY good period comedies are rare treats these days.

The Importance of Being Earnest, adapted by Oliver Parker from Oscar Wilde’s timeless play, isn’t the classic it tries hard to be but, in truth, it’s pretty close, packed to the gills as it is with fine actors and a string of excellent performances.

Algy Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, two upper class chaps in 1890s England, adopt the nom-de-plume of ‘Ernest Worthing’ to woo their respective ladies, never expecting that each will end up having to explain himself as their false lives overtake them and a mammoth comedy of errors/mistaken identity ensues.

It doesn’t help that Jack’s beloved’s mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, frowns on her daughter’s relationship with Jack-cum-Ernest, or that Algy takes on the mantle of the man-who-never-was to woo Jack’s ward, the delectable Cecily Cardew. The scene is set for a delicious confrontation…

As a fan of querulous actresses like Margaret Rutherford and Edith Evans I was desperate to hear Dame Judi Dench exclaim ‘A handbag!’ in the play’s most famous moment, immortalised on film by Dame Edith in the 1952 film by Anthony Asquith.

She doesn’t disappoint, but this is very much a re-invented Lady Bracknell just as the movie’s other characters – Jack (Colin Firth), Algy (Rupert Everett), Cecily (Reese Witherspoon) and Gwendolen (Frances O’Connor) – have been reconsidered and cast with a sharp eye for performance and detail by director Parker, also the man responsible for 1999’s An Ideal Husband.

This is frequently fabulous stuff – a Wildean romp for the 21st century with a clutch of stars that really know how to speak the language and wring laughs from Wilde’s words, now 107 years old.

Parker has chosen carefully, and with infinite precision. The likes of Firth, Everett and Dench might seem like obvious choices for a film of this type, but the ensemble, including Witherspoon, the film’s only American, is a breath away from perfect.

As a committed non-fan of costume fare The Importance of Being Earnest comes close to the top of my list of period tales alongside the likes of Relative Values (also starring Firth) and Gosford Park. As a re-invention it is really very clever indeed.

Alas, purists will doubtless be sniffy over the artistic licence taken with Wilde’s text – this is a textbook cut-and-paste job where even the ending is changed – but Parker and his cast pour their hearts into the story with such gusto that the intricacies of Wilde’s sexual and social politics, the laughter and romance comes through with aplomb.

Still, it pales against the 50-year-old antics of Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison, Dorothy Tutin, Joan Greenwood and the wonderful Dame Edith’s scene-stealing turn as the steely Victorian battleaxe who shrieked ‘A haaaaandbaaag!’ and turned a tremendously witty play into a one-line tour-de-force.

Parker’s film is fun but Asquith’s remains the real McCoy. If, however, you require a crash course in Oscar Wilde then this may be the film for you.

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