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Thursday, 5 September, 2002, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
Film boosts Earnest's importance
Rupert Everett and Reese Witherspoon
Rupert Everett (left) is a charismatic "Ernest"

Oscar Wilde gets the full star treatment with Dame Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and Reese Witherspoon lining up in his flamboyant and much-loved comedy of manners.

The play on which the film is based is Wilde's masterpiece, sparkling with witticisms on every page, hailed as a timeless comedy and a brilliant expose of social folly.

Colin Firth and Dame Judi Dench
"A man who desires to get married should know everything or nothing"
But the question for those who have loved Earnest's many stage incarnations, is what the film can add to a play whose chief joy is its delightful dialogue.

The plot concerns Victorian bachelors Jack Worthing (Firth) and Algernon Moncrieff (Everett), who discover that they have both invented fictitious characters to ease the passage of their lives.

Algernon has Bunbury, a sick relative who frequently calls him away from town - usually when unwanted social engagements or debt collectors rear their heads.

Meanwhile Jack has invented a wayward brother Ernest, whom he uses to disguise his own misdemeanours.

The comedy comes to a head thanks to the pair's infatuations. Jack falls for Gwendolen, the rebellious daughter of Lady Bracknell (Dench), one of the most fearsome arbiters of taste in London society.

Algernon, visiting Jack's country house as Ernest, charms his young niece, the flighty Cecily Cardew (Witherspoon), who has been dreaming of the roguish brother to escape the monotony of her lessons.

Pace and energy

Director Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband) set out to create a more cinematic version of the play than Earnest's last big screen appearance, the memorable - but more faithfully theatrical - adaptation by Sir Anthony Asquith in 1952.

Colin Firth and Rupert Everett
Bunburyists: Jack and Algy invent characters
He certainly has fun creating some enjoyable comedy that fleshes out the backgrounds and inner lives of some of Wilde's characters.

The film opens to Rupert Everett's Algernon making a hot-footed escape from his creditors around the back-streets of a Dickensian London, set to a jaunty melody that establishes an enjoyable pace and energy.

Later, in another bit of artistic licence that expands the canvass of the original, Algernon lands in the gardens of Jack's country house in a hot air balloon.

Here, Cecily's flights of fancy are amusingly rendered as she pictures herself and Ernest as characters brought to life in the Pre-Raphaelite paintings with which she has girlishly adorned her diary.

Exquisitely trivial

Meanwhile Jack's audience with Lady Bracknell, in which the formidable lady interviews him as a prospective husband for Gwendolen - one of the play's funniest scenes - is well done.

The hapless bachelor is escorted through a corridor of doors to a room where Lady Bracknell sits aristocratically with pen, paper and little bell.

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train

Jack appears to be doing well in the interview but the bell is rung furiously to spell the end of his chances when he reveals he does not know his parents because he was found in a handbag at Victoria Station.

Wilde described the play as "exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy" and in making his additions Parker has stayed close to the spirit of the original.

Despite its Victorian provenance the film feels contemporary, and the cast convey the irreverent spirit of the dialogue.

Everett is a charismatic Algernon, Firth is both debonair and stiff as the part of Jack requires, and Dench handles Lady Bracknell's playful side well despite coming into the production in the last three weeks of shooting.

The film will certainly appeal to anyone unfamiliar with Wilde and may be a breath of fresh air for those who have seen the play many times.

And the verdict? Probably halfway between the gutter and the stars.

The Importance of Being Earnest is released in cinemas in the UK on Friday.

Oliver Parker
Front Row interviews the film's director
See also:

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