The Importance of Being Earnest
review by Gianni Truzzi, 24 May 2002

Not Worthy

Oliver Parker opens up the action of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 sendup of class and custom well beyond the stage’s confines of the gentleman’s drawing room. He shows us London’s rowdy music halls, sinful smoking clubs and elegant restaurants where Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) carouses with his friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett). We glimpse his dual life as his brother Ernest when in town, while maintaining his respectability as Jack in the country. Under the gilt dressing and ornate plaster of her mansion, Gwendolen (Frances O’Connor) confesses she loves him only as Ernest, and Algernon, also pretending to be Ernest, courts young Cecily (Reese Witherspoon) amid the manicured gardens of Jack’s country estate. These are the bits of visual elegance to match Wilde’s droll wit we’ve been waiting for.

The effect is less liberating than one might expect. Perhaps because, in his eagerness, Parker embellishes too much. Wilde never wrote Gwendolen receiving a tattoo on her butt-cheek (most indiscreet!) or a fantasy knight on horseback tearing up the garden beds. Did Earnest really need tarting up?

Rupert Everett gives the rapscallion Algy the same laconic dash he employed in An Ideal Husband, Parker’s earlier (and more successful) transfer of an Oscar Wilde play to film. Everett’s long, handsome face grants him a sense of aristocratic indolence, making his Algernon a viper who is too lazy to strike. As Jack/Ernest, Colin Firth is dependable and dull, never seeming capable of any deep mischief. Casting Legally Blonde’s Reese Witherspoon was a clever stroke; her Cecily’s scheming might be dangerous if she knew anything about the world. O’Connor doesn’t seem to have made up her own mind about Gwendolen, whose intelligence never seems to have found anything worthwhile to be applied to.

Judi Dench looks at home as Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s imperious mother whose exacting social standards are Jack’s chief obstacle to matrimony. Like Shakespeare’s nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop or Margaret Dumont’s indignant dame in the Marx Brothers comedies, Lady Bracknell is the matriarch that speaks ridiculously for respectable society. Dench perches in her armchair, dressed up like a bottle of bath oils, and makes pronouncements on fashion ("chins are worn very high at present") and the unacceptability of Jack’s uncertain parentage, found as he was in Victoria station’s baggage check. It seems like the part Dench has been waiting her life to play.

Tom Wilkinson (of In the Bedroom) does a nice turn as the timid Doctor Chasuble, Wilde’s swipe at the ineptness of the church. Anna Massey, too, as Cecily’s tutor and Chasuble’s love interest, helps Wilde to mock the rules of social grace with her wide-eyed declarations of propriety.

The play, a popular chestnut for college and community theater as well as Wilde’s biggest commercial success, is preposterous folderol, its romp of identity deception little more than a home for parched bon mots. While clever, it has always been dramatically weak. Jack and Algernon are bloodless wags who speak of love with all the passion of accountants comparing sums. Wilde’s view of man was dim, but he saw women not at all; Gwendolen and Cecily are vain, silly creatures who speak in absolutes but maintain few convictions. Yet a fan of the theater can’t help but maintain affection for its sense of fun.

Repartee shouldn’t have to compete with scenery, as Anthony Asquith’s 1952 more stage-like version proved. Algernon does not, as Parker has him, make a balloon-riding entrance like Phineas Fogg, nor does he dress in armor to reflect Cecily’s romantic dreams. But Asquith’s actors do speak to each other. 

Oliver Parker’s enhancements don’t rescue Earnest from the contrivance of its plot. Wilde’s weightless banter struggles against the literal-minded, rococo flourishes that Parker has tied to its back. His camera seldom stays still, refusing to trust his actors to carry the verbal swordplay on their own. Directors of an earlier age, like Howard Hawks with His Girl Friday or George Cukor with Born Yesterday, understood that material that succeeds on the stage needs little dressing up. Parker’s faith in us is no better, drawing us pictures of what bounces around his characters’ empty heads.

What is missing most, even with the better performances, is the sense that the actors were in the same room. Their manner remains above the fray and they talk past one another. In Jack and Algernon’s small, overbred circle, nothing ever seems to be of much consequence. To Jack’s accusation, "Algy, you never talk anything but nonsense," the jaded rogue replies, "Nobody ever does." That might just sum up this eye-catching but disappointing movie.


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





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