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 WILD(E) ABOUT ERNEST

 
The Importance of Being Ernest is Oscar Wilde on a roll about superficiality, about the hypocrisy of the social state of England; he constructs a satire of irony and it becomes not a ranting farce but, out of the whirl of his wit, a confection of affectation. And probably why purists love Anthony Asquith’s 1952 movie with Edith Evans purportedly the definitive Lady Bracknell—she stoops to conquer with an imperious, daffy voice that causes audience surrender. But Dame tricksterism needn’t be an excuse not to do a remake: Oliver Parker’s 2002 adaptation of the Wilde send-up is a model of fidelity to the author using a disparate mix of modern movie devices—the very beginning has suggestive influences of Tim Burton’s Batman; the jazzy score by Charlie Mole defies the period yet enhances the nonsensically pretentious shenanigans; the unequaled verbal witticisms commingle with lush patrician trappings that are democratically viewer-friendly. In short, there’s a classy effrontery in Parker, and wouldn’t Wilde have loved it? Like the carpers, he might object to deletions and fantasies imagined, but judicious truncation and alteration in movies aren’t hazardous to the health of sacred text if at the core is loving faithfulness: nothing about Parker’s refurbishment detracts from Wilde’s conceit. Not every decision, though, a total success: Rupert Everett will likely play Wilde, but he’s got this perpetual natural frown that’s his central handicap here as Algernon; no way can he do romanticism, not as the snit he projects. (Online reviewers have already pointed out his ineffective smooching of his intended; others, in essays longer than Wilde’s text, posit that Algernon is “an effeminate aesthete.”) Colin Firth doesn’t have an altogether winning time of it, either: he doesn’t kiss his beloved very convincingly, either, and there’s meant to be irony in Jack Worthing’s vanity without pedigree, yet there is none, probably because Firth hasn’t the comedic power to underline his quirk of fate. (He can out-snob anyone, unsparingly evident in Apartment Zero and Pride and Prejudice.) Reese Witherspoon, the only American in the cast, is very pleasant as Cecily and very efficient in accent. (She’s pretty good in Vanity Fair, too.) Doing Gwendolen, Frances O’Connor, looking way too much like Julie Nixon-Eisenhower, is a charming libertine—tattooed, a smoker, a vehicle driver, a daring invader of a men’s club. (A contrast to the suffering she did in Mansfield Park.) Tackling Lady Bracknell, Judi Dench also Dames her way through the killer lines and gestures and theatrical indignation; using a crisp, clear dictional edge that picks up where Glenda Jackson left off, there’s a strong whiff of the unchallengeable. But very audience-receptive—there’s security in the surety of manner and resonance, even if Lady Bracknell is as silly and insecure as those who find themselves confronted by her. Aided immensely by hats—festooned with net, ribbons and feathers—as gloriously regal as the eye-popping dresses, Dench delivers lines like “We have already missed five, if not six, trains. To miss anymore might expose us to comment on the platform” for comic revelation of character and social norms that equal if not exceed Evans’s famous “Prism! Where is that baby?”

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