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22 December 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)

Directed by: Oliver Parker
Starring: Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, 
Dame Judy Dench, Reese Witherspoon, 
Frances O'Connor, Tom Wilkinson, 
Anna Massey
After watching Rupert Everett in The Ideal Husband, I decided I needed to get some more of my Everett fix. So which next? Michael Hoffner's adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Everett played Oberon, or another Oscar Wilde play? The latter won because I was in sore need of some intelligent humour. Just before watching the film however, I was looking up the play again online, when I came across the mention of a previous adaptation - the 1952 version of Wilde's play, adapted by Anthony Asquith. It was said to be the finest adaptation of this satirical take on men and manners, with Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison and Dame Edith Evans playing the roles of John Worthing, Algernon Moncrieff, and Lady Bracknell. So I watched it first before re-watching this version. It says much for Wilde's choice of language and dialogue that knowing the story and the dialogue didn't preclude me from watching the film a second time within a couple of weeks.

The year: 1895. The film opens with Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett) being chased by his debtors down the dark, cobblestoned London Roads. He manages to outwit them, and swinging into the nearest hackney cab (whose occupant, a lady of indeterminate years looks languishingly at him) arrives at his residence, where the morning after finds him languidly playing the piano (badly). 
Meanwhile, a country gentleman, John Worthing (Colin Firth), is making his way to the town due to, as he explains to his butler, the wasteful habits of his brother, Ernest. 
Only, once he reaches town, he doesn't seem to be in any great urgency to locate his brother, instead enjoying himself in the dance halls.  Where is also to be found 'Algy'. Only he refers to Worthing as 'Ernest'. 

Algy and Worthing / Ernest are friends - of a sort - and Worthing informs him that he's come up to town for the express purpose of proposing to Algy's cousin, Gwendolen. Algy informs him that before he gives his approval to the marriage, 'Ernest' will have to clear up the whole question of 'Cecily'.  Algy is in possession of Ernest's cigarette case, which appears to have been the present of someone named 'Cecily'.
Ernest tries to wriggle free by claiming Cecily is his aunt. But that doesn't go well, since the 'aunt' has referred to her supposed nephew as 'uncle' in the inscription. What's worse, the name is not Ernest but Jack. Why should Ernest be called Jack? Well, claims a beleaguered Ernest, he's Ernest in town and Jack in the country. He's always pretended to have a brother called Ernest so he could slip away to town whenever he wanted. Algy confesses to a similar ploy - he's invented a permanent invalid friend named Bunbury so he could go down to the country as often as he chose, especially when he wants to avoid unwelcome social obligations. Though he hints at wanting to know 'Cecily' better, Jack refuses to let him know the location of his country estate.
Algy's Aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell (Dame Judy Dench) has come to visit, with her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax (Frances O'Connor). Algy has promised Worthing that he will remove her for ten minutes to give the latter a chance to propose to his cousin - if he will invite Algy to dine with him at the Savoy that evening. 
Lady Bracknell is an indomitable personage, and when Algy claims that Bunbury's recurring ill health will preclude him from being at her residence for dinner that evening, snaps, 'Well, I must say, Algy, I think it's high time Mr Bunbury made up his mind whether he's going to live or die. This shilly-shallying over the question is absurd.But Algy manages to soothe her by offering to show her the music he's arranged for her soiree the next week, thus leaving the field clear for Worthing to propose. 

His proposal doesn't quite go the way Worthing imagined, even though it appears that Gwendolen is not indifferent to him; indeed, she says, she was quite attracted to him even before she'd ever met him, because her 'ideal was to fall in love with someone named Ernest.'   
But even though she loves him, says Gwendolen, marriage is a different kettle of fish altogether - why, he hasn't even proposed. So Worthing begins to propose, but is interrupted by Lady Bracknell, who's furious at seeing him, as she puts it, 'in a semi-recumbent position'. When Gwendolen informs her that she's in fact engaged to Mr Worthing, the indomitable Lady Bracknell responds that she's not engaged to anyone; when she is, she will be informed by her mother. Or father, if his health permits. 
 After having summarily dismissed her daughter, Lady Bracknell informs Worthing that he's not on her list of eligible bachelors, but if he should present himself at her residence the following morning, she would like to put to him a few questions. 

Meanwhile, back in the country, Cecily (Reese Witherspoon) is trying to get out of the intellectual pleasures laid in store for her by her governess, Miss Prism (Anna Massey). She's a romantic young girl, given to daydreaming about knights on white chargers coming to rescue her from terrors unknown. She even uses Miss Prism's mutual attraction to their rector Dr Chasuble to try and wriggle her way out of lessons. 
The next morning, a flustered Worthing presents himself at Lady Bracknell's residence. The interview is as harrowing as he fears. Things are going quite well, though, until Lady Bracknell discovers that Worthing has lost both his parents - he was found in a handbag at the cloakroom at Victoria station by a Thomas Cardew. On the Brighton Line, he is quick to explain. 'To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.' 

Poor Worthing has no leg to stand on; his only way to attaining the fair Gwendolen's hand is, according to Lady Bracknell, to make a definite effort, at any rate, to produce one parent of either sex before the Season is over. When he demurs, the redoubtable lady informs him that it is quite out of question for either her or Lord Bracknell 'to allow their only daughter, a girl brought up with the utmost care, to marry into a cloakroom and form an alliance with a parcel.' And thus the interview ends. 

But Gwendolen reassures a distraught Worthing that nothing he can do can alter her eternal devotion to him. She promises to write to him in the country, and when she's taking down his address in Hartfordshire, Algy surreptitiously notes it down on his cuff. 
Worthing decides it is time to end his double life. He plans to dispose of his dissolute brother 'Ernest' (since Cecily is becoming rather too interested in that young gentleman) by the simple expedient of having him contract a severe chill - in Paris. Algy is curious - has Worthing ever told Gwendolen that he has an excessively pretty ward named Cecily? Worthing hasn't; it isn't the sort of thing one blurts out to a girl, he says. Algy leaves, but not before he's purloined Worthing's handkerchief, embroidered with the initials 'E.W.'

The next morning finds Algy dropping in on Cecily in Hartfordshire. 
So when Worthing arrives, all dressed in mourning for his 'poor brother Ernest' who died in Paris, it is to find Algy cheerfully and comfortably ensconced in his residence, and well on his way to becoming great friends with Cecily. His story undermined by Algy's larger-than-life presence, and unable to evict him without exposing his own culpability, Worthing is forced to accept him as 'Brother Ernest'.
The morning brings further news. Gwendolen has decided to run away from home, and she intends to come straight to 'her darling Ernest'. Worthing is in a quandry - there cannot be two Ernests running around the house. But all efforts to dislodge Algy prove futile. Algy is trying to fix his interest with Cecily; she's young and beautiful - and an heiress! 
In this, he is aided by Cecily herself. When Algy proposes to her, claiming to love her beyond all belief, she informs him that she has been engaged to him for the past three months. It appears that she, like Gwendolen, is predisposed to like the name Ernest. 
In the meantime, Gwendolen has made the acquaintance of Cecily, and they fall into conversation, in which it is revealed that both of them are engaged to be married to 'Ernest' Worthing. The girls are rather indignantly staking their own claim to 'Ernest' when Worthing and Algy appear on the scene - their deceptions are quickly exposed as Cecily identifies Worthing as her guardian, Jack Worthing, and Gwendolen remarks that the other is her cousin, Algernon. This has the effect of uniting the girls against their heartless men.
Worthing and Algy, left alone, decide that they should - as quickly as possible - be christened Ernest. Once they get Dr Chasuble to agree, they manage to coax their respective beloveds out of their sulks. Everything seems to be set for happily-ever-after when the redoubtable Lady Bracknell arrives in pursuit of her runaway daughter. 
She still has the power to throw a spanner into the works. After all, John Worthing hasn't managed to find a parent yet. Or has he?   

The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the finest English farces, and it has been replicated on stage and screen many, many times. Oscar Wilde wasn't just satirising the British upper class - after all, he's done that before - he was also satirising the 'lower' classes who, when they entered so-called 'society', become even more stiff-upper-lipped than the upper classes. 'Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon,' says Lady Bracknell to her nephew. 'Only people who can't get into it, do that.' Lady Bracknell should know. She, so bothered about the antecedents of John Worthing, is herself but a women from a lower social class who managed to marry above her station. 'When I married Lord Bracknell,' she says in the play, 'I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.'

After the success of his Lady Windermere's Fan and A Woman of No Importance, Oscar Wilde mooted the idea of a play that satirised Victorian London, categorising it as 'A trivial comedy for serious people'. While Wilde had more moral lessons to impart in Dorian Grey, for example, here he restricted himself to mocking the customs and manners of the Victorian period, especially the social mores regarding love and marriage. (When Worthing informs Algy that he's come up to town expressly to propose to Gwendolen, Algy remarks: I thought you'd come up for pleasure? I call that business.')

Like Wilde's other plays, The Importance of Being Earnest also had some clever dialogue, and much of the fun lies in the repartee between the characters. When Jack asks Algy whether he fears Gwendolen will ever become like her mother, Lady Bracknell, in about 150 years, the latter quips, 'My dear fellow, all women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.' Or when asked what he thinks about John proposing to Gwendolen: 'I really don't see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe.' Indeed, some of the best quips in the play belong to Algernon. And Rupert Everett plays him with such languid boredom that one can't help being amused every time he's on screen. 
Compared to him, Colin Firth fares rather dismally. For one, John Worthing is such a damp squib of a character, and Firth seemed to make him even more of a wet noodle. He's so impossibly dull that even Oscar Wilde's witty dialogues fall flat. It didn't help that he was crossing swords with Rupert Everett either, especially since the latter's Algernon seemed to have some of the best lines. 
Frances O'Connor and Reese Witherspoon do the best with their lines - since they are both girls who want to marry a man named Ernest, sparks soon fly when they surmise that the other's beloved is their Ernest, after all. Their post-riposte brings to mind Algernon's quip about women calling each other 'sister' only 'when they have called each other a lot of other things first.' Reese Witherspoon, in fact, quite fit the role of the shallow young ingénue, Cecily. 
Apart from Rupert Everett's Algernon, the one person who is a joy to watch in this film is Dame Judy Dench as Lady Bracknell. Having played her on the London stage before, Dame Dench brings the necessary bite to Lady Bracknell's lines, especially when she's castigating poor Worthing or even Algy.

So, which version was better? I must say that I found Michael Redgrave better as John Worthing (though I wished he had been younger when he played the part); I liked both Michael Denison and Rupert Everett in the role of Algernon. And while Dame Edith Evans is known to be the definitive Lady Bracknell, rolling her Rs and booming away, I did like Dame Judy Dench's portrayal as well. However, it's a shame that the direction didn't allow her natural ability to be both subtle and comic at the same time; her Lady Bracknell was imperious and caustic, but even Judy Dench couldn't breathe life into a character that, in Parker's hands, was turned completely flat and undimensional, yet was given a backstory that cheapened her.

Since the source material is the same, who played which part better is a matter of subjective opinion. But this adaptation takes some liberties, which were totally unnecessary and detracted from Wilde's subtle, yet rapier-sharp humour. As a purist where book adaptations are concerned, I could have done without Gwendolen tattoing Ernest's name on her behind, Algy running through the streets of London to escape his creditors, or dropping into Worthing's country estate in a hot air balloon, Cecily's dreams of a knight in shining armour, and even the glimpse into Lady Bracknell's past... The 'improvisations' hardly improved the source material - the sparkling repartee was watered down in some cases by long pauses, and in others, cut outright (as in the scene where Gwendolen and Cecily originally meet) - and it is a shame that anyone should butcher Oscar Wilde so badly. I think director Oliver Parker took the recommendation of being earnest a tad too seriously. Playing Wilde's light as froth lines as if it were in fact serious drama should be made a crime, if it isn't already. 

What saves the film from being an out and out disaster is that one cannot completely obscure the cleverness and wit of  the original lines. However, if  you want to watch a film adaptation that remained completely faithful to the theatrical roots of the play, I would absolutely recommend watching Anthony Asquith's 1952 version.  

This one is recommended only if you are a fan of Rupert Everett or Dame Judy Dench. 

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