New Importance Not Ideal: A Remake of Oscar Wilde's Beguiling Comedy, the Importance of Being Earnest, Is Just That ... Too Earnest. (Film)

Article excerpt

Oliver Parker's 1999 film version of Oscar Wilde's play An Ideal Husband turned out so well that one expected something astute and delightful when the director turned his attention to the Victorian dramatist's most famous work, The Importance of Being Earnest. Alas, Parker's Earnest is a textbook example of what happens when a filmmaker refuses to let well enough alone.

A new movie version of this peerlessly sneaky, nonsensical romantic farce certainly was overdue. Anthony Asquith's 1952 film still has no competitors. One lifetime may not be sufficient to encounter a Lady Bracknell as awesome as Edith Evans' magnificent battle-ax, or a Gwendolen as smugly enchanting and vocally distinctive as Joan Greenwood's purring snob. Nevertheless, the idea of seeing a new troupe try its luck became more appealing as the original film approached its 50th anniversary.

The story goes like this: Algernon Moncrieff is the charming society sponger who poses as the notorious, nonexistent brother of his pal Jack Worthing, an eligible bachelor who values a facade of respectability and adores Algy's cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax. Jack has a starry-eyed ward named Cecily Cardew, who becomes intrigued by stories of the apocryphal brother, Ernest.

When Algy shows up at Jack's country home in Hertfordshire purporting to be Ernest, Cecily's romantic expectations are confirmed and the infatuation is mutual. The arrival of Gwendolen and her mother, Lady Bracknell, complicates Jack's and Algy's deception, but solutions are found that leave both love matches in a state of good repair.

Rupert Everett, a diffident tower of strength in An Ideal Husband, portrays Algy, with Colin Firth as Jack, Frances O'Connor as Gwendolen, Reese Witherspoon as Cecily and Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell. The middle-aged match of Rev. Chausible and Miss Prism, who have custody of Cecily's welfare during Jack's frequent trips to London, are played by Tom Wilkinson and Anna Massey, perhaps the happiest departure from the 1952 cast. Massey's sweet fragility provides a wistful contrast to the goodly, portly Prism of the inimitable Margaret Rutherford.

I think my fondness for the 1952 movie has little to do with the feeling of being let down by the current release. …


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