Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Importance of Being Earnest

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

2/10

UK/USA 2002 : Oliver Parker : 98 mins


ONE-LINE REVIEW: The big-name actors do their best, but its still hard to imagine a more unfunny or misconceived adaptation of Wildes classic than this inept bastardisation.


After An Ideal Husband (2000) – an Oscar Wilde adaptation with Rupert Everett prominent in a star-laden cast – director Parker outdoes even Frank Darabont by following up with The Importance of Being Earnest an Oscar Wilde adaptation with Rupert Everett prominent in a star-laden cast. Parker shows similar levels of ambition and imagination in his execution of Earnest as he did in his choice of material i.e. zero. And it really is an execution youd be forgiven for thinking that Parker hated Wilde in general and this play in particular.

He certainly isn’t awed by Earnests exalted status as a modern classic of British comic theatre, if his countless idiotic amendments, additions and deletions are anything to go by. If youre going to muck about with it, you can’t go half measures any revisions must come from a solid creative rationale. This is singularly lacking from Parkers approach: his arbitrary attempts at opening out the material are little short of disastrous. The first warning signs come very early on indeed he even makes a dogs breakfast of the opening titles. Scene after scene falls flat, with only the odd line here and there raising a chuckle. We sit for long stretches stony-faced as we watch these talented actors stranded in the wilderness of Parkers imagination.

Hed doubtless claim that he’s presenting this 1890s work for a 2002 audience and also that he’s deliberately trying to distance himself from Anthony Asquiths 1951 film version as much as possible. These are, on paper, sensible aims. But its probably not possible to fulfil them both and also retain fidelity to Wildes spirit and substance. The Asquith film was little more than a filmed record of the play, with no concessions to the cinematic medium but this isn’t a problem when you have a cast as definitive as Asquiths, each of them expert performers entirely in tune with Wildes brand of sweet-but-savage satire.

This play is an intricate, ornate, delicate creation. Any synopsis of its plot will sound absurd its a mark of Wildes genius that, in a successful production, the absurdities become all part of the fun. Here, we have ample time to ponder the distracting implausibilities that mount up when neer-do-well London fops Jack (Colin Firth) and Algy (Everett) repair to Jacks country manor for a weekend of wooing. But their intended targets society heiress Gwendolen (Frances OConnor) and Jacks young ward Cecily (Reese Witherspoon) cause complications when both insist they could only possibly marry men named Ernest. Hilarious confusions ensue.

Or rather, they would be hilarious, if Parker had any sense of comic timing. Alas, he has none and we are treated instead to more of his stodgy, old-school direction. He inserts some over-literal flashbacks, and startlingly awkward visualisations Cecilys knights-on-horseback fantasies. It doesn’t help that both interior and exterior scenes are conspicuously underlit, as if the whole thing was taking place on an especially dingy winter afternoon, nor that Charlie Moles score, sounds like the muzak from a z-grade 1970s saucy comedy.

It all adds up to a ponderous kind of semi-drama in which the talented actors like Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Edward Fox are painfully stranded. Firth comes across especially badly, and Everett doesn’t fare much better in a role for which he should be ideally suited. As Cecilys tutor Miss Prism, Anna Massey does have one remarkable moment when she faints in slow-motion and all her bones seem to liquefy. But its typical of this spectacular misfire that this is supposed to be one of the amusing bits instead of being a slightly harrowing image of emotional crisis.

But the most objectionable single aspect of this misbegotten movie is in its presentation of the manors servants. Silent, perhaps even mute, they observe the aristocrats shenanigans with beatific, bovine smiles on their faces. In one especially horrible scene, they line up for no good reason on each side of a flight of steps as the protagonists go through the motions of another dead-in-the-water bit of comic business, and we notice that several are kitted out in insultingly picturesque country-bumpkin costumes. For everyone who thought that the mercifully little-seen Relative Values was the nadir of this kind of nonsense, Importance of Being Earnest plumbs new depths. After Gosford Park, there really is no excuse.

2nd July 2002
(seen 15th June, UCI Silverlink, North Shields)

For other films rated 1/10 and 2/10 check out our Diorama of Dishonour.

by Neil Young