Oliver Parker’s production of Oscar Wilde’s famous comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest, starts off with a bang and continues it by adding numerous modern elements that sometimes detract from the overall dialogue that is crucial to a comedy of manners. Regardless, most of Wilde’s wit is preserved and humorously delivered by its strong actors.
The film follows two privileged dandies, Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) and Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett), both of whom invent associates to have an excuse to go where they like. Known in London as Earnest, Jack gets in trouble when his love Gwendolen (Frances O’Connor) is only engaged to him because of his supposed name. Algernon, while pretending to be Jack’s brother Earnest, finds himself in a similar quagmire when he gets engaged to Cecily (Reese Witherspoon), a lady who loves his name more than him. To add to this, Gwendolen’s mother (Judi Dench) goes out of her way to prevent the engagement from ever occurring.
The film succeeds on many points. The lavishing set designs and use of colors make the film more lifelike. The cool colors of Algernon’s flat contrasts beautifully with the warm colors of Cecily’s mansion. The elegant choice of colors reminds me of Joe Wright’s (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) equally beautiful films. Millenoti’s splendid costumes further compliment the colors and even bring a greater sense of nobility to the movie. Parker’s film also switches between scenes, breaking lose of its play origins and giving it an appropriate cinema quality.
Yet, the movie isn’t without its flaws, most notably the countless Parker additions, such as medieval fantasies or badly sung serenades, that don’t add any meaning. His additions might make the film more exciting and viewable to a modern audience, but they detract from the famous Wildean wit. A comedy of manners depends more on its witty dialogue than on its plot or action, and Parker’s additions at times devalues the dialogue. It even feels as if Parker includes those scenes just to make the movie longer. To be fair, Parker does keep most of the original dialogue with all its intelligent wordplay that stabs at Victorian society.
Other liberties Parker takes with his interpretation include harmlessly casting older actors, possibly meant to attract a more sophisticated older audience, and disastrously adding a twist to the ending, changing one of the most important meanings of the work.
The acting is overall well done. Both Firth and Everett act their roles perfectly, with all their silliness and over-romanticism. Witherspoon gives off a natural performance with a convincing accent and O’Connor plays her role well, but it seems to be lacking. Dench delivers her part with an air of seriousness, sadly leaving out her character’s whimsical and ridiculous side, which only comes through near the end. Perhaps the best actors are Tom Wilkinson and Anna Massey, playing Dr Chasuble and Miss Prism, respectively. The two actors are perfect for each other, portraying an awkward romance that is bound to make the audience laugh.
The ultimate question is: is this movie worth watching? Although Parker under- emphasizes the dialogue, the movie still stays true to its comedy of manners roots with its array of stock characters and biting commentary at Victorian aristocracy. Anyone eager for some high comedy would do well to watch this movie, but don’t expect the best interpretation ever. Rent it when you have nothing to do and delight in one of the English language’s best playwrights.