The Importance of Being EarnestThe Importance of Being Earnest
 
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"It is Criticism," Oscar Wilde once wrote, "that makes the mind a fine instrument." If this is true then surely Wilde's mind was among the finest of his time. Famous today for his plays and novels, Wilde was an accomplished critic of art, literature, and above all society. He dissected Victorian culture -- its customs and rituals -- but because of his upbringing (he was the son of Irish eccentrics) and his lifestyle (he was flamboyantly gay), he stood more than a few steps removed from its epicenter. This enabled him, however, to deliver his often nasty commentary without fear of reprisal. And there were many nasty commentaries to be had: Wilde was well-practiced in the art of the one-liner. Of adultery he wrote: "in married life, three is company, and two is none." Shocking at the time, but at the heart of that pithy remark lies a bemused self-satisfaction. Wilde was enamored of his own wit. It delighted him. As social gadfly, he had many opportunities to practice it and the pleasure was all in the process. Like any good craftsman, Wilde took pride in his work.

That last quotation about adultery, by the way, was from Wilde's most famous play The Importance of Being Earnest, first performed in 1895 and now newly adapted for the screen by director/writer Oliver Parker. It is spoken by aging bachelor and prince of idleness Algernon Montcrief (Rupert Everett). Algy, as he is called, lives a life devoted to verbal mischief and, like Wilde, takes enormous satisfaction from it. His ability to speak epigrammatically is shared by his close circle of friends and family, all of whom engage in conversation like pundits intent on matching wits. It is an elaborate game that gives them great pleasure. But it's a weary sort of pleasure: to appear to have too much fun, they would probably say, is the sign of an inferior intellect. Algy, for his part, need not worry about this. As played by Everett, he is the archetypal genius-past-his-prime, a man grown bored with the verbal swordsmanship of his youth and who is now searching for more ambitious game worthy of his age and experience.

An opportunity soon presents itself in the form of his friend Ernest Worthing (Colin Firth). Ernest, we learn, is the guardian of a young country girl named Cecily, who knows him only as "Uncle Jack." To travel more often to London, "Uncle Jack" has invented a cousin Ernest whose ill health requires his constant attention. Thus in London he is Ernest, and in the country, Jack. Algy finds this whole situation delightful and sets about insinuating himself in his friend's carefully laid subterfuge. Ernest/Jack, meanwhile, sets his eyes on Algy's cousin Gwendolyn (Frances O'Connor), a privileged society girl and only child of the imperious Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench), who is Algy's aunt. This whirlwind of names, relations, and double identities is presented clearly and efficiently by director Oliver Parker who, having previously adapted and directed Wilde's An Ideal Husband, knows this world inside and out. He also knows what liberties he can take with the material. The famous scene in which Dench's Bracknell evaluates Ernest's worthiness for her daughter's hand is usually played out in one long scene set in a drawing room. But Parker, in an inspired departure, whisks us away mid-scene to Bracknell's palatial London estate, where she continues her interrogation perched upon her throne. Here, in her natural habitat, she takes on royal dimensions, dispensing her brand of conventional wisdom like divine proclamation. Dench, channeling her Queen Elizabeth from Shakespeare in Love, is the life of the party and, in making her drollness so contagious, ends up channeling more than a little bit of Wilde as well.

Dench's delicate balancing act -- acidic but not yet curdled -- ennobles the entire film, but it also magnifies the flaws in the other lead performances. Colin Firth makes perhaps the biggest error in not honing in on Ernest's fundamental buffoonery. He plays the squareness of his name fine enough, but the comic lining is absent. When it turns out that Ernest was an orphan, abandoned unceremoniously in a handbag, there should be an instant deflation of his moral superiority. His good manners, ramrod posture, and upper crust elocution, which all seemed ostentatious to start with, should now also seem specious in a gawdy way. Adept at playing the emasculated and the misunderstood, Firth is the obvious choice for the part, but the look of dread that seems permanently etched on his face, and that usually serves him well, only works against him here. He doesn't appear to be getting any pleasure out of it. In fact, Firth seems to fully inhabit his character's sternness, shouldering it with a heavy, thespian duty. Too bad: a good Wildean performance, it seems, exists just outside the character, hovering over its edges, not taking itself quite so seriously. Firth would have done better to show a little less matter with more art.

A more convincing Ernest can be found in the 1952 screen adaptation of the play directed by Anthony Asquith. Michael Redgrave plays Ernest/Jack as a fey social climber on the cusp of gentility. When his marriage proposal is rejected on account of his low birth, he has no choice but to return to the countryside. Redgrave plays repressed humiliation just right, always holding his nose a little too high and clenching his buttocks a little too tightly. It's a great comic performance, achieving the buffoonery that eludes Firth, and it doesn't falter when Michael Denison's Algy shows up posing as "Ernest," his reclusive (and non-existent) brother, in an attempt to woo Cecily. Agly's appearance inevitably throws Gwendolyn and Cecily into a state of confusion, and before long, the battle line between the sexes has been drawn. Husky-voiced Joan Greenwood creates a surprisingly complex Gwendolyn who is eager to shake off her spoiled society girl image and to seize control of her romantic destiny. Dorothy Tutin's Cecily is equally confident, having anticipated Algy's interest in her by conjuring in her diary an entire romantic world around her beloved "Ernest." The pleasure both women take in assuming the romantic initiative is one of the play's chief joys and is sadly absent from the newer film version. Reese Witherspoon might have created an intriguingly maniacal Cecily, but her efforts are scuttled by Parker who reduces her to an icon of feminine weakness, literally a damsel in distress. As Gwendolyn, Frances O'Connor lacks both presence and depth; her performance barely registers.

This leaves Rupert Everett as Algy. A Wilde veteran (he starred in Parker's An Ideal Husband), Everett would seem to have the part nailed from the get-go, but something goes wrong. His languid, almost reptilian performance never quite reconciles itself to Parker's conception of Algy as an overgrown juvenile delinquent. So while Everett mopes about like a cad on the verge of a mid-life crisis, Parker sends him back to adolescence where he's either pulling jejune pranks or copping feels from dance hall girls. This fundamental disconnect becomes excruciatingly apparent later in the film when Algy falls for Cecily. Called on to mug romantic, Everett can barely muster a smirk. He might as well be rolling his eyes, so palpable is his contempt for the movie's shift from drawing room comedy to googly-eyed farce. Parker would have done better to cast Hugh Grant or Jeremy Northam as Algy, someone with both rakish intelligence and a knack for the well-timed aside. Either actor could easily navigate the improbabilities of Wilde's deus ex machina finale with, if not poise, calculated fluster. Alas, under Everett's half-hearted watch, Algy allows himself to be pushed to the sidelines like a chunk of comic dead weight.

But to entirely blame the actors is unfair: Parker must share responsibility for the movie's pervasive blandness. It is he, after all, who too often tries to help the play along by punching up the musical score or zooming in on a bit of physical comedy. Laugh, dammit, he seems to say, but in the end, it's all futile gesture. Wilde is the last person who needs help. His dialogue needs to be worn lightly, or not at all, and Parker only wraps himself and his cast tighter and tighter in it. With its forced humor, over-designed costumes, and its acting troupe seemingly pulled from Miramax central casting, The Importance of Being Earnest is top heavy with purpose and talent. And this, in the end, is its downfall. An elephant should never attempt a pirouette.


[rating: 2 of 4 stars]


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