Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)


Viewing it as a continuation in the long tradition of 19th century literary adaptations featuring Colin Firth, Oliver Parker’s 2002 rendition of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was a film I approached with a certain degree of measured scepticism. While I had no doubt that the film was well intended, the phrase “cash in” persisted in the back of my mind as I pondered whether this adaptation of Wilde’s most famous play could manage to justify its existence against accusations that its makers are simply appropriating a canonical literary work to make a quick buck. Now that the film has been viewed and I am able to arrive at a verdict on the matter, however, I’m disappointed to report that my findings remain inconclusive.

Let’s start with the good: one of the most fortunate qualities of Parker’s adaptation (one which he both directed and wrote the screenplay for) is that the lines of Wilde’s brilliant play are kept almost entirely intact. Although the opening scene develops quite differently in the film as compared with the play, the film version retains its charming banter while utilizing film’s potential to have the scene take place through various locations rather than fixing the characters within a single room. What is equally fortunate is that the film strikes a healthy balance between adapting the play for the film medium without compromising it in the process. This is in no small part due to the film’s all-star cast, who effortlessly navigate Wildean dialogue that would sound unnatural if delivered onscreen by less capable actors. Judi Dench’s Lady Bracknell is especially charming, and one can imagine Dench – beneath her character’s cold demeanour – beaming at the opportunity to deliver Bracknell’s lines, many of which rank among the play’s highlights.


As anyone who has read Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, will know, Wilde often wrote himself – or at least characters that bore an uncanny resemblance to his own personality and personal philosophies – into his works. Lord Henry from The Picture of Dorian Gray is one such example of this, and certainly Algernon is another. And there is no doubt that Rupert Everett was aware of this fact when delivering his performance as Algernon, as he channels the spirit of Wilde throughout every moment that Algy is on screen. Everett is aware of the mantle his character carries, and he reflects this with the wit and eloquence one expects of a classic Wildean character. It is worth noting that Everett has performed Wilde before, having appeared in a 1999 film adaptation of An Ideal Husband.



So, good performances, preserves all the good things about the original, should be a slam dunk, right? Not so fast. There are a few faults with this adaptation, and these lie primarily in the horrible flashback sequences that come sporadically throughout the film. To read about Jack Worthing’s origin in the play is implausible enough; to see it rendered on screen was laughable, and I think the attempt to do so was a clear oversight by director Oliver Parker. In fact, though there’s no dispute that Parker intended to make a comedy, one might almost accuse his version of being a tad too earnest: he should have been reminded that Wilde’s play was a farce whose resolution serves as the culmination of that farce. In Parker’s film, we leave with a Hollywoodesque reaffirmation that love conquers all, as the film takes a sudden serious turn towards the end as it attempts a satisfactory resolution from the light comedy that preceded it.

A final point I might make against the film is that, armed with acclaimed source material that is virtually guaranteed to self itself, Parker makes little if any attempt to make any personal mark of his own during the course of the film. This is a straightforward (vanilla, if you will) adaptation of a great Victorian play that I would recommend over other film versions of the play only because of the excellent cast this version boasts. It is unlikely to be a revolutionary experience for persons with even the slimmest of Victorian knowledge, and will do little to convert those who are not already interested in Victoriana. That said, the cast is indeed very good, and the play is still as enjoyable as ever. And while the cynic will question whether we need another adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, I myself will take this minor film as a welcome excuse to be reminded of Wilde’s skills as a playwright.

Rating: 3 stars
Victorian Cool factor: 5/10

- Kaleim

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