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Posts Tagged ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 19th September 2002:

Of all the great British film companies of yesteryear, Ealing Studios is second only to Hammer in terms of reputation and brand recognition. In the 1940s and 50s they released a string of razor-sharp and socially astute comedies about the British character and way of life, many of which are on the list of gold-plated all-time classics: The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and (my personal favourite) The Ladykillers.

Well, guess what – Ealing are back in business and their first release in this, their centenary year is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, adapted and directed by Oliver Parker. It’s the story of fairly strait-laced Edwardian gent John Worthing (Colin Firth), who lives in the countryside most of the time, and who has invented a fictitious brother Ernest whom he pretends to be when in town visiting his ladyfriend Gwendoline (Frances O’Connor) (she has a thing about men called Ernest). Meanwhile his caddish friend Algy (Rupert Everett), smitten with John’s ward Cecily (bussed-in American starlet Reese Witherspoon), pops down to the country to see her, masquerading as the non-existent Ernest too (she also has a thing about men called Ernest). When the two ladies both get engaged to ‘Ernest’, not realising he’s two different men, things get complicated – especially with Gwendoline’s terrifying mother (Dame Judi Dench) on the warpath…

It’s clear from the start that The Importance Of Being Earnest is aiming to be the kind of high-quality literary adaptation that we have a reputation for doing quite well in this country. And the production values are appropriately high, and the cast has – mmmmm! – that cachet of class about it: Anna Massey and Tom Wilkinson are in there too.

But for all these good intentions, the producers have obviously decided to go for the multiplex dollar. One can excuse the imported American star, as many a British film that can’t afford Hugh Grant opts to hire one, but the big surprise here is the nature of the comedy. Think Oscar Wilde and you think of throwaway witty aphorisms, social comment, a touch of satire and maybe Stephen Fry in a wig (if you’re me you also think of Blake’s 7 and Stuart Townsend’s appearance as Dorian Grey in next summer’s blockbuster The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but in this film the comedy is much, much broader. There is a quite shocking level of over-acting from virtually the entire cast (Dame Judi is obviously the exception) and the script even includes pratfalls and a running gag about tattooed arses in its relentless pursuit of big laughs. I got the strong impression the cast enjoyed making the film more than I enjoyed watching it, which is never a good sign.

And it doesn’t feel like an Ealing comedy, either. It doesn’t have the edge, or insight, or lack of sentimentality: it’s just a very broad, very gentle, knockabout romantic comedy. Wilde’s most famous lines all show up but they seem weirdly out of place. More ambition would have been better. This isn’t a bad film, it’s actually quite amusing – but, for all its CGI London skyline and big name cast, it feels more like a TV adaptation than a film in own right. Gosford Park for people with short attention spans: if you want to see it, you’ll lose nothing by waiting for the TV premiere.

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