The Importance of Being Earnest
review by Elias Savada, 24 May 2002

A Perfect Ten

Undoubtedly there are literary purists who will belittle the new cinematic treatment (last filmed a half-century ago and finally due for home video release shortly) given Oscar Wilde's 1895 hit comedy play, but the wit of the well-known double-Jekyll-and-Hyde original is joyously embraced in Oliver Parker's refreshing update, a fitting follow-up to his An Ideal Husband. The embarrassing problems that castrated Wilde's successful nineteenth-century London opening—on Valentine's Day—whereby the author was preposterously convicted of 'gross indecency' and imprisoned for two years, shouldn't befall the current version's conspirators. It's a charming romp with an engaging cast more than dutifully directed with a touch of whimsical urgency, wonderfully supplemented by an entertainingly anxious score by composer Charlie Mole, Parker's musical alter-ego, and a lovely landscape designed by award-winning Luciana Arrighi (Howard's End) and captured by Oscar-nominated (Room with a View, Howard's End) director of photography Tony Pierce-Roberts. The story is wonderfully appealing. It's dialogue is delightfully snappy. It's got four grand actors (actually more with the sublime supporting cast) that all brighten the screen, which translates into four stars of fun. Yes, a perfect ten.

There's a consummate glee in watching a broad smile break out on the audience's collective face as we are introduced to bachelors Algy Moncreef (Rupert Everett) and Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) conning their way with through London society and discovering the fun of dashing out from luxuriously expensive dinners at the Savoy without paying the check. That grin broadens considerably as the various identities, scams, rogues, and humorous intrigues are further revealed and intertwined in Wilde's deviously comedic flirtation.

Jack, a reserved estate owner with a questionable social ancestry (more on that later), has invented a reprobate brother that allows for him to escape to the bustling city from his dull country life , spent mostly sheltering his well-educated eighteen-year-old niece Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon). In London Jack becomes his irascible, imaginary younger sibling Ernest "to amuse himself," skipping out on bills and having a grand time with Algy, a barely solvent yet utterly appealing ne'er-do-well. He's also availed himself of a pretend friend, the ailing invalid Bunbury (who gets a fitting end-credit send off), whose curiously bad health allows for Algy to blamefully escape numerous, more worrisome, engagements. One such dinner he conveniently removes himself from is with the redoubtable Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench, scoring exceedingly well in a smallish, grand inquisitress role, wickedly close to her memorable Shakespeare in Love character), a.k.a. his aunt Augusta, whose beguiling, determined daughter Gwendolen Fairfax (Frances O'Connor) is romantically attached to Jack's alter-ego Ernest.

Algy uses Jack's secret to his benefit, invading Jack's palatial estate from the skies (via hot air balloon) masquerading as the now-remorseful brother Ernest. Which makes for an amusing episode when Jack simultaneously greets his servants at the front door with what are purportedly the ashen remains of his dearly-departed irresolute sibling, having suffered a horribly sudden death in Paris "from a chill." One of the attendees is the semi-prudish, ditsy Miss Prism (Anna Massey), Cecily's live-in teacher, herself encumbered with a few show-stopping secrets. She deadpans that the deceased Worthing undoubtedly had learned his lesson, suggesting to the gathered crowd that "I hope he will profit from it!" She and the tongue-tied local rector, Dr. Chasuble (Tom Wilkinson), stutter through their own amorous missteps in a match made in sidebar, lunatic heaven. Of course, Algy/Ernest is smitten by the beauty of Cecily (who likewise fancifully envisions him as her knight in shining armor), while Jack/Ernest has to deal with locating a parent—he was abandoned in a cloak room at Victoria Station (Brighton line) as an infant—that would prove him to be of suitable lineage to wed the sexually sophisticated Gwendolen. The male suitors hit a romantic roadblock when each of their brides-to-be have an inexplicable unwavering attraction to men with a particular eponymous name. The would-be grooms are thus hard pressed to shed their aliases, fearful their intendeds will flee the altar when the seemingly minor deceit is revealed.

The entire cast is marvelous, bubbling with perfect energy and totally in sync with Wilde's spirit and Parker's slightly revisionist adaptation. Yes even Reese Witherspoon dons a passable British accent and lovable social snootiness. And don't overlook veteran thespian Edward Fox, who adds a short but subtly comic turn as Jack's manservant Lane. The Importance of Being Ernest is a dishonorably delicious tale of lover's labors nearly lost. I can't remember having so much fun watching such scoundrels at play in the fields of society and love. This most deviously wonderful feast awaits you. Enjoy the meal. And by all means, come back for seconds, and more.


Written and
Directed by:

Oliver Parker

Rupert Everett
Colin Firth
Frances O’Connor
Reese Witherspoon
Judi Dench
Tom Wilkinson
Anna Massey
Edward Fox
Patrick Godfry
Charles Kay

R - Restricted.
No one under 17 
admitted without parent
or adult guardian





  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.