Monday, April 7, 2008

The Importance of Being Colin

This was my second viewing of the 2002 cinematic adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” I was really more impressed this time, I think because I had not been lectured to on the subject by a professor of English. My biggest problems were the action scenes. I’m simply unimpressed with filmmakers who try to Americanise classic British works by adding chase scenes and Reese Witherspoon in a decidedly – what’s the word Gissing uses? – sluttish outfit. You may defend the costume design on the grounds that Wilde himself was none-too-concerned with the ways people thought of his dress and manner, but in that instance, I will point you to Hollywood’s continued retardation of North American culture for the purposes of homogeneity and profit flying in the face of anything resembling integrity or authenticity.

You may well defend Witherspoon’s costume on the grounds that Cecily herself is a country girl and not accustomed to the style of dress of the city, that she is, in fact, has no need to dress in such a manner. I will point out that certainly even if someone as earnest as Mr. Jack Worthing would allow it, the outfit would never be deemed acceptable to Lady Bracknell. No, the outfit is a blatant exposure of Witherspoon’s childish American frame for the purposes of tittilation and – once again – profit. To be perfectly frank – by which I mean earnest – she reminds me more of Fanny French of George Gissing’s In the Year of Jubilee than she does of anything resembling Cecily Cardew. Also, she is American. She doesn’t look in the slightest English.

There is much criticism, on the other hand, of Judy Dench’s interpretation of Lady Bracknell as understated. I think that overstated Lady Bracknells are impossible to take seriously – and therefore impossible to laugh at – and that Bracknells played by men simply undercut any chance of gender inversion depicted in the character. Dench, because she takes herself so seriously, is realistic to us. If we do not know someone who takes herself and her position this seriously, then we certainly are aware of the fact that there are those women (and men) who are so serious all the time that it is funny. Dench’s earnestness is in her softness, not in her loud and obnoxious manner. Leave that to Albee’s Martha.

My mother once made a comment about a singer in a musical that he was “too good looking to take seriously.” I must admit, I am still beleaguered by this idea. What exactly is it about a handsome face that makes it less believable. Having said that, I suggest that Rupert Everett’s face is just a touch too ruggedly handsome for the role of Algernon Moncrieff. His face is perfect; it detracts from his realism. It’s true, Wilde was constantly mocking the realist dramatists of the day you need to present the concept accurately in order to make fun of it. On the other hand, he delivers the nuances of the role so well, that the unrealistic beauty of his face is only barely noticeable.

Frances O’Connor as Gwendolen Fairfax is in fact my favourite casting choice. She’s got such a perfect poker face, always smiling just so, so that you can never quite tell whether or not she’s being insulting or genuine. I liked her costume, as well. It’s a little demonstrative without being, shall we say, American. And I like her tattoo. It’s cute.

Then there’s Colin Firth as Jack Worthing. Enough said.

Well, the real value of the picture is its scenery and setting. The production values were extremely high for this picture and as a result you get a very authentic view of a dandified Victorian London, without all the shit and gore that it’s now apparently famous for. Certainly the filmmakers can’t have thought too much of the dialogue’s ability to tell the story at hand because it’s all cut up and edited. Also, in order to keep the audience’s interest, the scenes – which in the play are one act each – are split into several settings. This is necessary in modern film, as the audience needs to be reminded that there is more to the setting than one room in a house. In realist drama there isn’t, and so in Wilde there was not for the simple fact that he was satirising realism, as I’ve said above. The cinema cannot very well satirise realism because that is the principle upon which it is based. Well, Hollywood, anyway.

That would be something, wouldn’t it? I’d like to see an acidic adaptation of this play! Then we’d see some satirical realism. Oh, the fun we’d have! And it would be a propos of the style to which Wilde refers, though just a little updated.


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