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At Wit's End 

Because he was monstrously persecuted during his lifetime for the sin of being homosexual, it would be fitting had poet and playwright Oscar Wilde been a provocateur, a withering social critic, and political revolutionary who damned the world he inhabited with fiery speeches and a clarion call for change. But he wasn't. Instead he advised, not altogether insincerely, "Never speak disrespectfully of Society. Only people who can't get into it do that." Akin to a figure closer to our own time like Truman Capote (who did weightier work), Wilde was a man who treasured society and his own place within it. His trademark was wit, the cleverly turned phrase, the sly observation meant to delight rather than sting. Wilde's plays were desserts rather than entrees. And The Importance of Being Earnest is generally regarded as the tastiest of his confections. Now writer-director Oliver Parker, who earlier filmed Wilde's An Ideal Husband, has brought out a new film treatment of Wilde's masterwork.

Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest in 1893, but Parker has set his film in the ragtime era perhaps a decade later. The extremely contrived story involves the romantic complications of a host of upper-crust Brits. Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) is a man of wealth and standing. He owns a townhouse in London and an estate in the countryside, where he resides most of the year. We don't know the roots of Jack's money, but we do know he started out life a foundling, a crying babe stashed in a suitcase and left in a train-station baggage closet. For reasons entirely essential but just as entirely nonsensical, Jack likes to train into London occasionally and pretend to be his nonexistent younger brother Ernest, who savors dining at the Savoy and then walking out on the bill.

In the mysterious guise of Ernest, Jack has met and fallen in love with Gwendolen Fairfax (Frances O'Connor) and has employed the family connections of his disreputable pal Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett), Gwendolen's cousin, to woo her, much to the irritation of Gwendolen's stern, demanding mother, Lady Augusta Brachnell (Judi Dench). Gwendolen is pretty thoroughly dominated by her mommy, but she loves "Ernest" enough to have his name tattooed on her right buttock (an instance of romantic devotion I don't recall Joan Greenwood suffering in the 1952 film version). Moreover, Gwendolen is enough in love that she commandeers an automobile for the journey from city to country so she can surprise her love in his own lair.

Ah, but Algernon has gotten there first, and he has taken to calling himself "Ernest" in order to court Jack's comely blond ward Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon). So you can imagine the cat fight spawned of Ernest confusion as the two young beauties determine, erroneously, that they are engaged to the same man. Don't bother to ask why Cecily surrenders her heart at the mere mention of Algernon's fraudulent name nor even to wonder how or why Algernon, having seemingly never met Cecily previously, decides to concoct his subterfuge in the first place. For in Wilde as in Shakespeare, all's well that ends well, so we best recall that the plots of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream bear little more scrutiny.

What's important in Wilde is an ensemble ready to take lip-smacking pleasure in the almost utterly inconsequential. Parker has assembled just such a cast. Dench delivers the same imperiousness she wielded in Shakespeare in Love with comparable comic effect. Everett and Firth have both passed on to the dark side of 40 but play characters in their mid-30s as rambunctious adolescents, ready to wrestle and box over the exuberance of being alive. O'Connor contributes a nice balance of sexual readiness and ingrained superiority. And Witherspoon slips into her English accent like a J Lo ball gown, making a striking transition from the humorless student body president in Election to Valley Girl ditz in Legally Blonde to the dreamy country lass here. Kudos to one and all.

But what's most fun in Wilde are the memorable phrases, turned in this production with such zest. Zingers are often aimed at romance: "My dear fellow, the way you flirt with Gwendolen is perfectly disgraceful. It is almost as bad as the way Gwendolen flirts with you." Or, "Women who flirt with their own husbands are perfectly scandalous. It's like washing their clean linen in public." But the ironic darts at society are perhaps the most enduring: "If the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?" "More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read." "The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, education produces no effect whatsoever." And in a line that seems a mantra for modern democratic politics, "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing."

click to enlarge Much ado about nothing: Frances O'Connor, Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and Reese Witherspoon get into the spirit of things in The Importance of Being Earnest.
  • Much ado about nothing: Frances O'Connor, Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and Reese Witherspoon get into the spirit of things in The Importance of Being Earnest.
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