Just as one of Oscar Wilde's resourceful gentlemen is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, so it seems that "The Importance of Being Earnest" was a comedy in the last century and a drama in the new one. At least, that's the dumbfounding impression left by writer-director Oliver Parker's utterly miscalculated film adaptation of Wilde's play.

Just as one of Oscar Wilde’s resourceful gentlemen is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, so it seems that “The Importance of Being Earnest” was a comedy in the last century and a drama in the new one. At least, that’s the dumbfounding impression left by writer-director Oliver Parker’s utterly miscalculated film adaptation of Wilde’s play. Trims in the text might be expected, though not necessary for an under-two-hour feature; and the opening up of the stagebound action is decidedly a mixed blessing. But what washes out the joys of Wilde’s usually delicious concoction is a tone that bafflingly drifts toward seriousness, especially whenever thesps Colin Firth’s Jack and Judi Dench’s Lady Bracknell take center-screen. Wilde fans will turn away in dismay, with only costume drama diehards likely to support this on the big screen.

Pic’s ancillary hopes are even sure to be dimmed, since the Miramax release opens just weeks before Criterion Collection’s unveiling of a freshly restored DVD edition of Anthony Asquith’s stagebound but infinitely preferable 1952 version starring an indelible Michael Redgrave as Jack and Dame Edith Evans as Bracknell. Earlier picture also points to everything that is wrong with Parker’s handling, which starts with a brief chase scene involving the perpetually indebted dandy Algy (Rupert Everett) that’s apparently designed to include some “action,” but only looks like bad outtakes from “From Hell.” Parker’s script breaks up the dialogue between Algy and best friend, Jack, into sections that take them from a music hall to a lounge to Algy’s London digs, but this only serves to impede the flow of Wilde’s elegantly constructed dialogue.

Algy exposes Jack’s ongoing ruse that he playacts as a fellow named “Ernest” in the city, which gives him an excuse to leave his country manor and visit Gwendolen (Frances O’Connor). Algy, meanwhile, has invented his own fictional creature, a sickly man named Bunbury, whom he “visits” — that’s his excuse for getting out of the city. None of this is nearly as amusing as it should be, but things get downright glum when Algy’s aunt, Bracknell, shows up and glowers at Jack’s interest in Gwendolen. When Bracknell interviews Jack about his class pedigree and suitability for marriage, it is all about intimidation and not at all about Wilde’s view of Bracknell as hilariously unaware that she is a bag of hot air.

Parker’s adaptation inserts some new visual material that has Jack dramatically trying to uncover the true nature of his upbringing, since all he knows is that he was found as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station. Nothing is more stunningly off-key in the movie than this revelation, which invariably gets big laughs in any decent stage version but is approached as high drama here.Thus, it’s strange to discover — back at Jack’s sylvan estate — that Reese Witherspoon as Jack’s beloved ward Cecily, Anna Massey as Cecily’s tutor Miss Prism and Tom Wilkinson as local priest Dr. Chasuble and hopeful suitor to Prism haven’t forgotten they’re actually doing Wilde. Fitting comfortably with the otherwise Brit cast, Witherspoon instantly flashes her charm as Cecily drifts off into romantic fantasies (though Parker ruins the effect by archly depicting them on screen), while Massey and Wilkinson are masters of comic timing and the just slightly daft turn of their too-long-in-the-country folk.

Adaptation is rarely content to simply let Wilde’s characters settle into the drawing room of their choosing, continually interrupting the flow of the original text and generating the queasy feeling of desperation by trucking in “visual” notes.To wit, Algy actually arrives at Jack’s home via hot-air balloon (with nobody commenting on it).

Some new business involving Algy being chased around London and the countryside by debtors and Savoy Hotel reps is meant to underline the rake’s non-progress, but it just gets in the way of what is arguably one of the English language’s most perfectly devised comedies.

Somewhere between the just-right froth of Witherspoon, Massey and Wilkinson and the poor judgment of Firth and Dench are Everett’s slightly amusing but never winning Algy, and O’Connor’s pleasant but unmemorable Gwendolen; those prone to imaginative re-casting would certainly top the list with Richard E. Grant, seemingly born to play Algy.

A big widescreen look, complete with a notably underlit approach by lenser Tony Pierce-Roberts, creates an expensive, naturalistic style that simply doesn’t belong to Wilde’s specific and exaggerated universe. Elegance courses through Luciana Arrighi’s slightly Italian-accented production design, Maurizio Millenotti’s costuming and Peter King’s makeup and hair design. Pic features one of the worst examples of “funny” music in recent film.

The Importance of Being Earnest

U.K.-U.S.

Production

A Miramax release of a Miramax Films and Ealing Studios presentation, in association with Film Council and Newmarket Capital Group, of a Fragile Films production. Produced by Barnaby Thompson. Executive producer, Uri Fruchtmann. Co-producer, David Brown. Directed, written by Oliver Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Tony Pierce-Roberts; editor, Guy Bensley; music, Charlie Mole; production designer, Luciana Arrighi; art director, Paul Ghirardani; set decorator, Ian Whittacker; costume designer, Maurizio Millenotti; sound (Dolby SRD), John Midgley; supervising sound editor, Max Hoskins; visual effects, Men From Mars; makeup and hair designer, Peter King; choreography, Quinney Sachs; assistant director, Richard Hewitt; second unit camera, David Brown; casting, Celestia Fox. Reviewed at Miramax screening room, L.A., May 10, 2001. (In Tribeca Film Festival--International Showcase.) MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Algy - Rupert Everett Jack - Colin Firth Gwendolen - Frances O'Connor Cecily - Reese Witherspoon Lady Bracknell - Judi Dench Dr. Chasuble - Tom Wilkinson Miss Prism - Anna Massey Lane - Edward Fox Gribsby - Charles Kay

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