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 on irony and it becomes not a ranting farce but, out of the whirl of his wit, a confection of affectation. Of stage, movie and television versions, purists have long favored Anthony Asquith’s 1952 movie with Edith Evans the definitive Lady Bracknell—having stooped to conquer with an imperious, daffy voice flooring audiences to comic surrender—with the long-lasting impression she is the play and can’t be topped. But Dame tricksterism needn’t be an excuse not to do a fuller, lusher 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 wrought by Tim Burton’s Batman; Charlie Mole’s jazzy score defies the period yet enhances the nonsensically pretentious shenanigans; the unequaled witticisms commingle with patrician trappings very viewer-friendly. In short, there’s a classy effrontery in Parker, and wouldn’t Wilde have loved it? 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 core is loving faithfulness and nothing about Parker’s refurbishment detracts from Wilde’s conceit. Not every decision a total success: if Rupert Everett likely plays Wilde one day with a gut pad, he wears this perpetual natural frown as a central handicap to Algernon; no way can he do romanticism, not as the tall snit he projects. (Online reviewers have already pointed out his ineffective smooching of his intended; another, in an essay longer than Wilde’s text, posits Algernon is “an effeminate aesthete.”) Colin Firth doesn’t have an altogether winning time of it, either: he doesn’t kiss his beloved any more convincingly, there’s meant to be irony in Jack Worthing’s vanity without pedigree, and missing is the comedic power to underline his quirk of fate. (He can out-snob any actor, unsparingly evident in Apartment Zero and Pride and Prejudice.) Reese Witherspoon, the only American in the cast, is very pleasant as Cecily and pretty good in accent. (She’s pretty good with one 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. (Quite a contrast to the suffering she does in Mansfield Park.) Tackling Lady Bracknell, Judi Dench also Dames her way through killer lines and gestures with theatrical indignation; using a crisp, clear dictional edge picking up where Glenda Jackson left off, there’s a strong whiff of the unchallengeable while maintaining audience receptiveness. 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 at the very least equaling Evans’s famous “Prism! Where is that baby?”

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2003 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.