In 1895, Oscar Wilde created a basis for the expression “it’s all in the name” with his complicated comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The story follows the lives of two society bachelors using the name Earnest to win the affections of the women they love. For it appears that in the late 19th century, marrying a man named Earnest is every young girl’s dream.
Recently, Oliver Parker (“An Ideal Husband”) decided to turn this delightful comedy into a film. Though the original stage script is better in many respects, Parker’s adaptation is quite true to Wilde’s work. Most lines are identical to the play but locations have been adjusted to enhance the story, originally performed in only three acts.
In the opening, we meet Algernon (Rupert Everett, “My Best Friend’s Wedding”), a comedic bachelor, and a friend he calls Earnest (Colin Firth, “Bridget Jones’ Diary”). In this confusing opening the audience learns that Earnest, in fact, does not exist. It is merely a name employed by Firth’s character when he is in the city. In the country he is called Jack and gives the name Earnest to his fictitious “brother.” Algy deems this fabrication of a person in order to get away easily “Bunburying” for he himself has an “ill friend” name Bunbury he “visits” in order to avoid time with his aunt. Due to this scenario, the opening is quite confusing to an audience member unfamiliar with the story. Wilde’s version is much easier to understand.
The main reason for Jack’s visit to the city is to propose to his beloved Gwendolyn (Frances O’Connor, “Artificial Intelligence”). She accepts, revealing her childhood dream to marry a man by the name of Earnest, but her mother is not as excited. Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench, “Die Another Day”), is a blunt woman who adds laughs with her cold personality and refined mannerisms. In her interrogation of Jack, one of her daughter’s many suitors, he reveals his peculiar and mysterious origin, of which she does not approve.
Meanwhile, Algy is determined to see the country life of his dear friend and meet Jack’s ward, the young, beautiful and hopelessly romantic Cecily, (Reese Witherspoon, “Legally Blonde”). He comes to the country acting as Jack’s brother, Earnest, and soon falls in love with Cecily. The consequent events are humorous and romantic as the characters realize the immense importance of being Earnest.
The film ends, as it began, confusingly. A flashback by Lady Bracknell in Parker’s conclusion (unlike Wilde’s) leaves the audience perplexed as to the truth of Jack’s origin. Judi Dench, however, delivers the most notable performance in the film, with a cruel pose and well-defined character. She is indeed the best cast while Everett, Firth and Witherspoon’s performances are also well done. Anna Massey (“Possession”) appears as Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor, in a poor, forced performance that detracts from the scenes.
While the music is ill fitted and overbearing, the costume and set design are superb and picturesque. The DVD also provides great added features including a “The Making Of…” with comments by the actors as well as optional audio director commentary. The most interesting feature is the behind-the-scenes footage shot from various angles and played without distracting voiceovers, giving those truly interested in the making of a Hollywood film an accurate portrayal. “The Importance of Being Earnest” on DVD is a delight to watch, but not a necessity.