Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"The Importance of Being Earnest" (Oscar Wilde): 2002 remake

The 2002 version of Oscar Wilde’s comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest” from Miramax, and director Oliver Parker, who adapted Oscar Wilde’s play himself, is a lavish 1890s period piece, colorful, lush, and full widescreen. The earlier version had come out in 1952 from Universal with Anthony Asquith as director and adaptive writer but was also in Technicolor. In the newer version, Rupert Everett plays Algernon Moncrieff, Colin Firth is Jack Worthing, Frances O’Connor is Gwendolen Fairfax, and Reese Witherspoon is Cecily Cardew; and Judi Dench is the lynchpin as Lady Augusta (Gwendolen’s terrifying mother).

The whole farce sounds like a grand manipulation, a situation comedy with misplaced or deliberately concealed identities. But what really counts is the way Wilde manipulates the Victorian social artificialities with great punchlines that really do expose raw nerves, particularly in the part of Lady Augusta.

The setup happens because Jack, when in London, calls himself Ernest when he pursues Gwendolen, whereas Gwendolen’s cousin Algy, who knows Jack’s “secret,” also “becomes” Ernest to chase Cecily.

No one can make straight men look foolish when pursuing wives as Oscar Wilde, who had plenty of reason to step on the toes of the straight world. Lady Augusta says things like, too much education will destroy the English upper class (as she praises “natural ignorance”), and quips that the French Revolution destroyed family values. She makes a funny comment that fiction is a world in which good ends happily and bad ends unhappily. Later, we learn of an accidental switch of a baby (in a handbag) and a fiction manuscript (in a stroller) that resulted in the relationship between Algy and Jack being lost. Augusta (before that revelation) also tells Jack (in the “interview”) that he has to get himself a parent (or both parents). She also tells her daughter that parents get to choose grooms for their daughters. Wilde seems to be showing that the social meaning given to “family” was a major motivation for marriage to take place at all. There is even a dead hand clause in a will that determines at what age a daughter will be allowed to become an “adult” (it’s 35!).

The film opens with an arresting dark-street prequel with Algy running from debt collectors. In those days, debtors went to jail. Later he gets a visit from a process server -- they had those in Victorian England.

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