Film & DVD Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

Director: Oliver Parker. Starring: Rupert Everett,Colin Firth, Frances O’Connor, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench

Reviewed by Patrick Harrington

The Importance of Being Earnest DVD Cover

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The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the wittiest plays in the English language. The play contains one hysterical and cynically astute line after another. My favourite is about Happy Endings being what fiction is all about! For anyone who has not seen or read the play, this movie version will be an excellent introduction to it.

The cast is superb, and could hardly have been improved upon among today’s actors and actresses. Colin Firth is a natural to play Jack Worthing AKA Ernest, and Rupert Everett is utterly perfect as Algernon. Frances O’Connor plays Gwendolyn, and Reese Witherspoon does a superb job portraying a young Englishwoman. Judi Dench hands in a strong performance as Lady Bracknell.

Despite this the movie fails to be the definitive film version of Wilde’s play. There are two reasons for this. The first is the presence of an earlier, stronger film. The second is a series of bad decisions made in the production of this film.

Anthony Asquith directed the 1952 film. As good as the current cast is, the earlier cast was, with only one exception, much stronger. Michael Redgrave was a better Jack Worthing than Colin Firth. And while I rate Frances O’Connor highly, Joan Greenwood was probably the best Gwendolyn imaginable. Rupert Everett excels the performance of Michael Dennison as Algernon, and Reese Witherspoon comes close to equaling Dorothy Tutin as Cecily, but not even Judi Dench doesn’t come close to Dame Edith Evans extraordinary performance as Lady Bracknell. This is important to me, as Lady Bracknell is one of my favourite characters -summing-up as she does the attitudes of a certain class of English Lady!

The new film also makes a number of additions and changes to the Wilde play, most of which are unnecessary and distracting. For instance, much of the first scene of the play is relocated in a number of locations, including a brothel, instead of Algernon’s lodgings. Instead of arriving at Jack Worthing’s country estate by rail, Algernon arrives by hot air balloon (!) and Gwendolyn arrives by motorcar. There are a number of scenes in which Cecily imagines knights and nymphs that are quite irritating. And Gwendolyn has “Earnest” tattooed on her bum, a rather absurd modern addition.

The one way in which the newer film surpasses the earlier film is in making the whole thing feel more like a film rather than a filmed play. The Redgrave-Greenwood version was virtually a straight filming of the play, with a bare minimum of deviation or departure. The new film makes considerable efforts to be more dynamic visually and to break up the scenes so that it isn’t obviously divided into Acts.

My advice it to rent or buy both versions and compare and contrast!

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