the importance of being earnest (2002)

director: oliver parker

rupert everett, colin firth,judi dench, reese witherspoon, frances o'connor

A handbag is the pivotal plot point around which the entirely ridiculous plot of The Importance of Being Earnest revolves, but it’s the pronunciation of the words “a handbag” that typify precisely why the latest movie version of Oscar Wilde’s famous play is such a failure.

Like most things of beauty, Wilde’s play was filmed with near-perfection almost fifty years ago, directed by Anthony Asquith, with Michael Redgrave as Ernest (also know as Jack) and Dame Edith Evans in the pivotal role of Lady Bracknell. Evans had, by 1952, come to own the role, and it was customary to cast productions of the play around her. For the latest movie version, director Oliver Parker has cast Dame Judi Dench, a choice that you might think is blessed with a certain symmetry, but which is really only the first of countless mistakes.

Colin Firth plays Ernest, who’s known as Jack in the country where he needs to be respectable, and Ernest in town where he leads a libertine’s life with his dissipate friend Algernon, played by Rupert Everett. The choice of Everett may have been the only wise decision made, as Algy is effectively Wilde’s stand-in, and Everett has, after all, been playing Wilde for most of his career.

Frances O’Connor plays Gwendolen, Ernest’s fiance, and Reese Witherspoon plays his ward, and the best thing that can be said is that they take direction well, despite the fact that the direction given is so utterly wrongheaded. For some reason, Parker has decided to make the motivations of Wilde’s characters more human, even sympathetic, when it’s obvious to anyone who’s seen the play that everyone, from Algy and Ernest to the various butlers, is really just a mouthpiece for Wilde’s acerbic one-liners, loving put-downs of society and the farce of upper-class manners.

And it’s with Lady Bracknell that Parker gets everything wrong. As played by Edith Evans, she was an imperious battleaxe, a dreadnought in a corset, and a virtual stand-in for every virtuous pretention of Victoria’s empire. As played by Judi Dench, she’s more like Judi Dench - appealing and likeable and utterly sympathetic. When Ernest is forced to divulge to Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother, that he was found as a baby in a handbag in a railway station, Evans pronounces the words “a HANDbag!” as if they were the most outrageous and obscene she’s ever uttered. As delivered by Dench, they’re just a noun and its companion, and the whole fantastically silly contrivance of Wilde’s comic satire falls to pieces around them.