When any endeavor is first conceived and then undertaken, it's always wise to start off with an idea or concept that's proven and thus that much more likely to succeed. That obviously holds true in moviemaking and explains why so may films are based on preexisting novels, plays, real life stories or even other movies.
One could certainly do worse than starting off with one of Oscar Wilde's acclaimed works as their jumping off point. An eighteenth century novelist and playwright, Wilde penned renowned plays such as "A Woman of No Importance," "An Ideal Husband" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" that have served as the basis for various film adaptations, including director Anthony Asquith's lauded 1952 version of "Earnest."
Now, writer/director Oliver Parker has revisited the 1895 play with his own take on the classic comedic tale of mistaken and fabricated identity. No stranger to Wilde's world, Parker previously adapted "An Ideal Husband" in 1999 and generally received high marks for his work.
It's hard to predict the reaction to this adaptation, however, as the filmmaker has taken some artistic liberties with the piece, a point that might displease some critics as well as purists of the late Irish writer's works.
The most notable change to the piece is that it's now been opened up for the big screen. If there was one generally agreed upon criticism of the 1952 film, it was that the effort felt confined in its stagy theatrical trappings. Obviously feeling the same way, Parker opted to move various scenes to new locales with far broader vistas.
The result is obviously far more appealing from a visual standpoint. Yet, the brilliance of Wilde's original work was in its intimate qualities, character portrayals and exchanges of witty and socially relevant dialogue. Aside from the jettisoned confinement, the rest is mostly still present, but a great deal of it feel as if some of the air has been let out or managed to escape. The result is a generally amusing diversion that retains enough of its pedigree to work, but one that lacks the punch and/or pizzazz to come off as outstanding.
For example, the comically intertwined mistaken identity plot is fun to behold as the characters must eventually face the repercussions of their lies regarding their concocted friends, siblings and/or their own identities. Even so, something feels just a tad off in the execution and/or timing of the material. It's not enough to make any of it fall flat on its face, but it's amiss just enough to lessen the joy of seeing the plot unfold and watching how things connect, interact and ultimately play out.
To the potential dismay of purists, Parker has also excised and/or split up some of the material and even added some moments previously not found in the original work. While such viewers may balk at that, the subtractions and additions will go unnoticed by the casual viewer as they don't particularly stand out or have much of a negative or positive impact on the proceedings.
Fortunately, most of Wilde's terrifically witty dialogue remains intact, and there are few contemporary performers who can deliver it with such dry and charming panache as Rupert Everett ("The Next Best Thing," "Shakespeare in Love"). Having already collaborated with Parker on Wilde's "An Ideal Husband," Everett comes off as a seasoned pro who seemingly could play this role in his sleep.
While perhaps not quite as zany as some might like to see - the added scenes of his character occasionally on the run from creditors does little or nothing for him or the story - Everett is always entertaining in the role that nearly seems as if it were written specifically for him.
As his unwilling accomplice and similar partner in character deceit, Colin Firth ("Bridget Jones's Diary," "The English Patient") is also good, even if he's playing the straight man to Everett's character and the exchanges between them aren't always pitch perfect (although some delightfully are).
Judi Dench ("The Shipping News," "Iris"), of course, commands the screen as the haughty and pushy Lady Bracknell, yet another part she seems born to have played. Between her and Edith Evans' performance back in the original film, the character continues to be portrayed in a memorable and high fashion.
Some of the best performances come from Frances O'Connor ("Bedazzled," "Mansfield Park") and Reese Witherspoon ("Legally Blonde," "Election") as the two ladies enamored with their respective versions of Earnest, while Tom Wilkinson ("In the Bedroom," "Black Knight") and Anna Massey ("Possession," "Dark Blue World") constitute a smaller but related subplot about a rector and the tutor with whom he's enamored.
All in all, and despite the modification of the original work, the production is fairly enjoyable to watch. While it might not be up there with the 1952 filmed adaptation or various staged versions of Wilde's play, and may not appease the purists, "The Importance of Being Earnest" is still entertaining enough to warrant a rating of 6.5 out of 10.