Right. The plot, sub-plots, twists and turns of Oscar Wilde's infamous comedy are too witty and absurd for justice to be done to them here. Just briefly then...
Jack Worthing and Algy Moncrieff are two eligible bachelors from Victorian London's High Society, who both misleadingly assume the pseudonym 'Earnest' to pander to the dreamy desires of their respective sweethearts. Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Cardew are two beautiful young treats both obsessed with marrying a man named Earnest. Gwendolyn, Algy's cousin and daughter of the formidable Lady Fairfax, has fallen for Jack, whilst Cecily, Jack's ward and the tutee of the prim Miss Prism, begins to enjoy the attentions of Algy. What follows is a delightfully complex catalogue of misunderstandings, sharp one-liners and engaging repartee, keeping the audience/reader on his toes almost to the point of exhaustion.
Oliver Parker's screen adaptation largely retains the character and comedy of Wilde's play, but does fall foul on occasions. At a slick 97 minutes long, the film is two minutes longer than Anthony Asquith's 1952 adaptation starring Michael Redgrave, but no richer for the extra. Parker takes a large slice of artistic license at times, no more so than when we are subjected to a visualisation of Cecily's racy daydreams. He also fails to make full use of a quality cast. Judi Dench is wonderfully adept in her portrayal of Lady Fairfax, and Colin Firth makes a solid stab at Jack Worthing. Both the exquisite Frances O'Connor and the sweet Reese Witherspoon delight in places, though the latter's failure to hide her American vowels incites the occasional cringe. Rupert Everett is the weakest link however, with an overly confident and uninspiring performance in the pivotal role of Algy. His delivery of some of Wilde's most celebrated lines fails to amuse, and serves only to bemuse. The quaintly bumbling beagle Dr Chasuble is played charmingly by the ever versatile Tom Wilkinson of Full Monty fame, while Anna Massey competently supports as the prudish Miss Prism.
Though brilliant at times (look out for a lovely stand off between Dench and Firth), one can't help but feel that an opportunity has been missed here. The film adds nothing to, indeed seems thankful for, a brilliant script. There is always a danger in adapting a scintillating written work for cinema. Parker's piece is fun and lively, but laced with an unwelcome flippancy which is sadly undermining. Oscar, I think not. 6/10
Reviewed By Tom Gillham
13th of September 2002