Adapting a film from a play is full of pleasures and pitfalls. The best writers and directors employ a whole toolbox of strategies to transform a work almost wholly dependent upon language into one that trades pure language for the pleasures of sound and location, color and action. As often as not, the adaptations are less-than-successful -- there's still too much dialogue and not enough white space, or the director adopts a smirking, postmodern stance that reminds you that this is a film-about-a-play movie. Happily, The Importance of Being Earnest comes as close as any recent movie adaptation of striking a perfect balance between the demands of the original form and those of the adaptation.
The play has been cut and reordered, given some background and taken out of the drawing room. Among other things, it has retained the deeply silly plot: Young Victorian rake Algy discovers that his friend Earnest is living a double life; his real name is Jack and he is a wealthy country landowner. He has invented the character of Earnest to come to the city and woo Algy's cousin Gwendolyn, daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell. Algy turns the tables on Jack and goes to his country estate pretending to be the dissolute Earnest whereupon he falls madly in love with Jack's young ward Cecily. There's lots of silliness about mistaken identities, babies left in handbags on the train, long-lost relatives, etc.
What is a director to do with such a subject? Well, largely what writer/director Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband) has done. First, cast the movie with impeccable actors such as Rupert Everett (Algy), Colin Firth (Earnest), Judi Dench (Lady Bracknell), Frances O'Connor (Gwendolyn) and Reese Witherspoon (Cecily) and set them loose on the material. Second, fluff up the verbal with the visual, including exquisite and overwrought Victorian costumes and interesting locations. Third, beef up the characters slightly by means of a few back-story scenes never imagined by Wilde (including a few flashbacks). Fourth, throw in a tune or two, including an appropriately silly duet by Everett and Firth. Finally, highlight some of Wilde's best lines (usually given to Lady Bracknell): "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness."
Put these elements together and -- voil -- alchemy, a decent movie from a classic play. If you're a theater purist, you may want to avoid the film, but if you're not, go. A delightful summer romp awaits.
-- Andrea Lucard