Our rating: 4 out of 5
reviewed by: Charity Bishop
The critics seem divided on this film. Some say Oscar Wilde is spinning in his grave; others claim he would adore it. Not being able to ask him his opinion, I am forced to take on the film by its own merit. There's no doubt about it... this adaptation is just a wee bit Wilde! Part irony, part Oscar, and part insanity, this isn't the Earnest you thought you knew. If you're able to cast off the play for a few brow-raising alterations, you might actually enjoy this clever screenplay that mixes irony with a barrel of laughs and a dash of impulsive cynicism.
The story centers around a non-existent character by the name of Ernest, and the two men who make convenient use of him. Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett) is a London socialite deeply in debt. Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) is a countryside aristocrat who uses the excuse of his brother "Earnest's" bad behavior as an excuse to visit town as often as he likes. In London, he assumes the identity of his imaginary brother and therefore never endangers his public reputation. The problem lies with this alias when it jeopardizes his romance with Algernon's cousin Gwendolyn (Frances O'Connor). The only daughter of the wealthy Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench), Gwendolyn is madly in love with "Earnest"in fact, she admits that in this time of popular ideals, she has determined never to marry a man whose name isn't Earnest.
Lady Bracknell opposes the match because of Jack's backgroundhis parents "lost" him in a handbag at Victoria Station. He was taken in and raised by the late Mr. Cardew and has no idea of his parents' true identity. She informs him that if he desires to marry her daughter, he must produce suitable evidence of who he isone, or preferably both parents, by the end of the season. Faced with this challenge, he believes it too dangerous to continue his London charade, and determines to kill off Earnest with a "severe chill" in Paris. But once he returns home, he finds the trouble had only just begun! Algernon has obtained his country address and is masquerading as his brother in the hopes of evading his creditors... and meeting Jack's lovely young ward, Cecily (Reese Witherspoon). The golden haired young lady fancies herself as a princess and immediately falls for her rakish "cousin." She also confesses that ever since she first heard his name, she knew she was destined to love him. How could anyone not love a man named Earnest?
It's only a matter of time before a case of mistaken identity erupts into pandemonium... and from there becomes what is known as one of the most hilarious and clever plays ever written. Oscar Wilde was best known for his mockery of the Victorian society' emphasis on family, wealth, station in life, and corseted set of ideals. The most fun he ever had in his writing was denouncing each and every one of the time's pre-set ideas of propriety, and doing so with cynicism and wit, making a laugh out of impossible situations. With An Ideal Husband, it was a challenge to the ethics of political life, marriage, and the idea of "perfection" in mankind. With The Importance of Being Earnest, it's a joke on the gravity of human failings; it mocks women's ideals and men's failings equally and manages to get away with it. The former is still the best of the adaptations, but Earnest is no less fun. Although silly by its own merit, the film can be appreciated for its good humor, and lack of seriousness. The writer has taken liberties with the original play in attempting to make it translate well to the big screen. Without being a staunch lover of the play itself, I loved these updates, as well as the addition of a fun-filled jazz soundtrack. Surprising twists include the arrival of Algernon to Jack's estate in a hot air balloon, and Cecily's daydreams in which she is rescued by a knight. The most brow-raising of these additions encourages us to believe that Gwendolyn is so in love with the name of "Ernest" that she has it tattooed on her hindquarters. Perhaps a sense of irony taken a bit too far?
Other than that, the film provides some excellent laughs and the ever-enduring classic lines of Oscar Wilde, the majority of which are given to Lady Bracknell. It's actually humorous to see Algernon throwing himself through windows, nearly being trampled by street cars, and scaring passing motorists half to death in his frantic escape from screaming bankers. The nicest thing about the film is its PG rating, which makes it fairly suitable for family viewing. There are some can-can girls present in several scenes; dancing on-stage, they lift their skirts to show off ruffled underpants. There's also a drawing of a nude woman in one of Cecily's books. We briefly see the tattoo on Gwendolyn's backside. Some flirtatious and passionate kissing exist, but there's no profanity and no violence. There isn't much character development, but the dialogue makes up for it.
Although Earnest is considered the best of Wilde's plays, the director has somewhat lessened the impact by cutting, pasting, adding, rearranging, and improvising the original text. In some ways, it builds up the plot; in other ways, it does damage. Of the two adaptations, An Ideal Husband remains my favorite, but everyone should "learn the vital importance of being earnest!"