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The Importance of Being Earnest (Oliver Parker) 2002

   

    It would take a complete moron to foul up a screen adaptation of Oscar Wildeís classic satire ďThe Importance of Being EarnestĒ, but the first few minutes of Oliver Parkerís new adaptation of the play had me worried. The first thing that we see is a chase scene, of all things, and that hardly seems appropriate. Before the opening credits end, the film rapidly shifts through five or six settings, and one gets the impression that the director felt it necessary to tart up the material with some action. Fortunately, the film settles down a bit as it proceeds, and whenever itís at its most chamber-bound, it works best. The dialogue is excellent, and it when the actors are delivering it well, as they do here, we donít need any sort of directorial embellishment to entertain us. Every once in a while, Parker overplays his hand again, though, and whenever he does the effect is jarring. Parker apparently wants to open up the play, to make it more cinematic, but it doesnít wholly work on his terms. Do we really need a point-of-view shot from a handbag to get us involved in the action? The occasional lapses into the fantasies of the characters are equally jarring. In an adaptation of a play so filled with wit, they feel downright obvious and unnecessary. The actors are quite capable of conveying their feelings to us. We donít need to be beaten on the head with it.

   

    Iím hardly the greatest fan of Judi Denchís recent work, but she really nails her portrayal of the haughty Lady Bracknell here. Itís really just an extension of the same mood that won her an Oscar for her eight minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love, but itís still a satisfying act. The rest of the cast is ranges from the acceptable (Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson) to the surprisingly good (Reese Witherspoon, whose attractive blondeness always seems to disarm the audience, making each one of her performances a fresh surprise). I imagine English professors and Wilde devotees might take more exception to the liberal adaptation to the material than I have. One canít help but feel that the director took Wildeís great satire more seriously as a romance than he should have. As I said, it would take a moron to ruin the source material, and though I might not agree with many of Parkerís choices, heís not a moron. The Importance of Being Earnest, mostly through the power of Wildeís wit, survives this time around. No amount of pomposity can keep you from laughing at some of these lines.

 

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05-26-02 

Jeremy Heilman