The importance of being Wildean
The latest adaptation of Oscar Wilde tries too hard to be user-friendly
There’s frothy entertainment aplenty in the new film version of the classic Oscar Wilde play, The Importance of Being Earnest. It serves quite nicely as a midsummer night’s frolic, and its source, obviously, more or less guarantees literate wit of a sort that rarely turns up in movies these days.
That the thing has only a shadow of real emotional substance would matter less were it not for the campy condescension in certain facets of this particular adaptation. Wilde’s comedy of paradoxical wit is still very much present, and there’s a good and attractive cast on hand to play it out. But filmmaker Oliver Parker has added some flip touches that succeed only in diluting the effect of the original material.
Colin Firth and Rupert Everett bring charm and humor to the two chief male characters, both of whom have an on-again, off-again attachment to the name Ernest in this comic drama that is partly a rather chaste bedroom farce and partly a very worldly comedy of manners.
Judy Dench plays the formidable Lady Bracknell, while Frances O’Connor and Reese Witherspoon play the young women to whom the men are attracted.
Parker’s direction of the early scenes has a zesty comic brilliance to it, but the deeper he gets into the plot, the more he turns to arch stylizations and pandering anachronisms. His version of Wilde trades heavily on a background of Victorian proprieties but pushes the setting just beyond the Victorian period via an early automobile, a lover’s tattoo, and a tendency for ragtime in the music.
Seemingly, this version of Earnest wants to have its Victorianism made safe for the sexually hip demographic in its audience. In a non-Wildean irony, this film erases much of what it is most genuinely modern in Wilde (that paradoxical iconoclasm) by presuming to "update" the text in user-friendly fashion.