The Importance of Being Earnest
A part of Oscar Wilde's genius is that he could make a play that is actually about nothing at all into the most delicious comedy ever written in the English language. We listen open-mouthed, like children, as lines pour out of that great mind with more wit and perception than we mortals will ever show in our own lifetimes. The critic Roger Ebert made a random selection by downloading the text of the play and then selecting just the first complete line from the top of his screen. I will copy his list:
"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his."
"Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?"
And the classic: "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness."
It is possible that a poor high-school production could mangle the play so badly as to lose much of the wit (I was in one); nevertheless the play is almost actor- and production-proof, with more epigrams per minute than can be counted. And when it gets the performances and direction it deserves, it is a delight from beginning to end. The new film version, adapted and directed by Oliver Parker, succeeds on every level.
Rupert Everett is Algernon Moncrieff, Algie, a charming upper-class ne'er do well who lives off of his friends, particularly Jack Worthing (Colin Firth). The two men have, for reasons of the plot and nothing more, created alternate beings for themselves. Jack is Jack at home in the country, but he is Ernest when he is in London. Algie has a fictional sick friend named Bunbury, whom he must go and visit whenever his creditors come too close. Jack wishes to marry Gwendolyn (Frances O'Connor), the daughter of Lady Bracknell - played here by the redoubtable Judi Dench - while Algie falls in love with Jack's young ward Cecily (the American actress Reese Witherspoon).
But enough of the plot, which we all know will end happily for everyone. There are some marvelous permutations throughout. Jack has no lineage to speak of, having been found as a baby in a valise left at Victoria Station - a lack of provenance that requires Lady Bracknell to forbid the marriage. At the same time Algie introduces himself to Cecily as Ernest, for reasons we need not go into. Mistaken identities are rampant, what with two Ernests and the confusion they create between the two young women. What is important is that everyone in the cast has a great command of Wilde-speak; we see the sparkle in their eyes as they share the lines with us. And director Parker has added some scrumptious visual touches that, while not pure enough for some critics, I found adorable. At moments when the characters envision a moment of bliss, a fantasy, an ecstasy of love or fulfillment, he shows us live putti, or charging horsewomen, or garlanded cherubs enjoying themselves. They are like little exclamation points that serve as punctuation to the lines themselves.
He has also opened up the play by setting it in the most visually opulent locations, but has directed the action so as to use those locations for the practical purposes of dialogue and plot, and not to lean on them as ends in themselves. The film moves as swiftly, and as lightly, as a clear-running stream. Everyone knows his or her role in it, and the ensemble work is seamless. Over the years the play has withstood many assaults, but this film production need not apologize for anything. It is an almost perfect translation, and we are grateful.