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The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)

Woe be unto those who tamper with perfection. Oscar Wilde's stage-play The Importance of Being Earnest is one of English literature's greatest texts, a soufflé of paradoxes and aphorisms carefully concocted to satirize the manners and mores of upper-class English society. A popular work for over a century, it frequently enjoys theatrical revivals in London and elsewhere, but only one director dared to create a theatrical film in the 20th century — Anthony Asquith, whose 1952 picture remains the definitive home-video item for students and fans of Wilde's rapier wit (thanks in large part to Criterion's pristine DVD release). Thus, the arrival of Oliver Parker's 2002 Earnest was met with trepidation in some quarters, and not because the world was overdue for a new cinematic rendition. Rather, Parker plays fast and loose with some of the most carefully crafted wordplay in modern English. Rupert Everett stars as Algernon Moncrieff, a dandyish London playboy constantly on the run from his creditors. His best friend Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) seems far more respectable, with one little secret: In order to get away from relatives in the countryside, Jack pretends to have a scandalous brother named Ernest who lives in London, and when Jack is in the city he happily takes on his fictitious sibling's identity. Hoping to marry Algy's cousin Gwendolyn (Frances O'Connor), Jack finds himself both rejected by her mother Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench) and also struck by the fact that Gwendolyn has her heart set on marrying a man named Ernest. To make matters more complicated, Algy decides to take on the same role of Ernest Worthing to visit Jack's country estate, where he falls in love with his friend's ward Cecily (Reese Witherspoon), a young lady also intent to marry a man named Ernest.

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To be certain, there is nothing inherently wrong with taking a well known stage-play and adapting it to the screen — a critic would be far too close-minded to suggest there could be no value in the experience, and many works of Shakespeare have benefited from cinematic interpretations that expand the Bard's Globe Theatre trappings with impressive location shooting and convincing violence. Thus, Oliver Parker's 2002 The Importance of Being Earnest must rest on its own merits. Unfortunately, it is a lavish, opulent failure. And the key issue must be stated thus: Wilde's Earnest primarily is not an experience of characters or sets or plot twists, but simply words and phrases themselves. Done properly, the play sings with passion and irony, and Wilde's text always remains center stage. Asquith's 1952 film succeeds because of this — it is in fact framed as a theatrical production, and only a handful of unobtrusive sets illustrate the proceedings. But Parker's rendition undermines all that Wilde intended: Phrases that should be mannered and artificial are instead spoken naturally, and hurriedly; locales that should be enclosed instead are vast and open; for a drawing-room comedy that should be small, the events here are writ large. In fact, by creating such expansive settings, the four main characters occasionally seem insignificant to Parker's scheme. And the performances themselves are not as good as one would expect from the featured actors. As Algy, Rupert Everett plays the rascal with a sneer rather than the charming elegance he deserves. Colin Firth is more agreeable as Jack, but he fails to really put his mark on the performance (as an exasperated Michael Redgrave did in 1952). Neither Frances O'Connor or Reese Witherspoon illustrate the fundamentally superficial natures of Gwendolyn and Emily, and Judi Dench is wasted in one of the great roles of English theater — her Lady Bracknell isn't a gorgon, but just a calculating old woman. Perhaps if the performances were a bit sharper, and the direction less meddling, this could have been a welcome experiment, particularly with a text that's too often considered sacrosanct. Using a 1920s setting and a Dixieland/ragtime score is a fun touch, and the art direction is impressive. Parker's predicament is that Oscar Wilde's words do not require embellishment — and when he is adorned in this manner, one can only wonder if the director is interpreting the playwright or merely competing with him. If the latter, it's not a smart fight to pick. Buena Vista's DVD release of The Importance of Being Earnest features a clean, colorful anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. Supplements include a commentary from director Parker, who delivers subdued observations in a hushed tone; a "making-of" featurette full of cast members offering luvvies (7 min.); non-narrated behind-the-scenes footage (14 min.); and a trailer gallery. Keep-case.

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