“The old Ernest is dead, long live the new Ernest”
I remember rather enjoying this 2002 film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest at the time, though I hadn’t seen it on stage before then I don’t think and so on re-watching it now, I can’t say I am as inclined to be as forgiving about it. Oliver Parker’s film seems so determined to put his own stamp on Wilde’s sparkling humour, assumably to make it relevant to modern audiences, that he somewhat loses sight of what makes Wilde’s work such the joy that it is.
The tight three-act structure of the play is completely exploded with chase sequences, hot air balloon rides, money collectors, infuriating fantasy sequences and trips to tattoo parlours sending the film sprawling over too many locations. Clearly the opportunities offered by film mean the constraints of theatre are no longer applicable, but in not a single case do any of these innovations actually work with the story. They simply dull the sharp blade of Wilde’s wit, indeed Julian Fellowes’ screenplay excises whole chunks of it, and it is most certainly not a fair swap.
On the plus side is a top-notch cast who are largely on top form. Rupert Everett relishes the loucheness of Algy and Colin Firth is surprisingly well-suited to the slyer humour of Jack Worthing, Frances O’Connor makes an appealingly fresh Gwendolen and if Reese Witherspoon is a tad overly mannered, she is not helped by constantly having to stop for Cecily’s fantasies to be enacted. Dame Judi Dench’s Lady Bracknell has somewhat less of a prickle about her – the infamous handbag line is nicely dealt with in a breathy exhalation – and Anna Massey and Tom Wilkinson bring their customary class to the would-be lovers of Prism and Chasuble.
West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire makes a fine stately home for the setting of Jack’s country pile and there’s a lovely little cameo for Finty Williams as Lady B in her youth, and it isn’t that bad in the end, I have to give my younger self a little credit. But knowing the play as I do now, it does not really rank as a strong adaptation. This is epitomised in the final scene with sweeping music playing over Prism’s revelations making them incredibly mawkish where one ought to be laughing; a cheeky late addition which recasts the final lines of the play suggests the kind of clever wit that should have been brought to bear throughout all of the film.