(This is the sixth of my reviews for the Period Drama Challenge.)
The Importance of Being Earnest is a screen adaptation of the play by Oscar Wilde. It is widely considered to be his masterpiece. I have never yet seen it performed on stage, but it is coming soon to a theatre nearby, so I'm hoping I will in the near future!
I don't exactly remember when I first saw this movie, but I think it was one of my earliest introductions to period films, so I wasn't too critical, and it had a place in my heart before I knew enough to realize that it really is quite silly. As I said, I haven't yet seen it performed on stage myself, but it is considered the lightest of Wilde's comedies, so I imagine this is a fairly faithful adaptation. Set in 1890's London, this satire on Victorian society is full of light-hearted comedy and zinger lines.
|Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing|
Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) is the character that I think of as the lead, although I suppose he really shares the spotlight with his best friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett), or perhaps that's just because Everett usually manages to steal the show, no matter how small the role? (Okay, I'll stop the stage references.) These two young men have both invented imaginary people who give them excuses to escape their daily lives. Jack pretends to be called into London by the irresponsible antics of his brother Ernest, and while in town, assumes the identity of Ernest himself. Algernon quickly discovers that his friend is a fellow "Bunburyist."
Jack: "'Bunburyist'? What on earth do you mean by a 'bunburyist'?"
Algy: "You have invented a very useful younger brother called 'Ernest' in order that you may be able to come up to town whenever you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called 'Bunbury' in order that I may be able to go down to the country as often as I choose."
|"Well, it is 'Ernest' in town, and 'Jack' in the country."|
In his "bunburying" as Ernest, Jack wins the love of Algy's cousin Gwendolyn (Frances O'Connor), who is shallow and silly and only falls in love with him because he's named Ernest, a name which she says inspires "absolute confidence." Her mother, a rigid and proper Victorian lady, doesn't immediately approve, but is willing to interview "Ernest"/Jack for the position. Lady Bracknell is played impeccably by Judi Dench.
|Gwendolyn and Lady Bracknell|
Algy, having discovered by Jack's admittance of "bunburying" that Jack also has a lovely young ward at his home in the country, decides to pretend to be this errant brother "Ernest" and visit. As "Ernest" he proposes to Jack's young ward, Cecily, and is accepted because of that confidence-inspiring name. Cecily is played quite charmingly by Reese Witherspoon. She is very youthful and child-like in her manner most of the time, which is a little strange for an 18-year-old.
|"You must not laugh at me, darling, but it has always been a girlish dream of mine to love a man named Ernest."|
Cecily has some amusing innocent daydreams of a knight in shining armor, saving her from distress. Or German grammar, as the case may be.
|Cecily's girlish fantasy of being rescued by her Sir Ernest.|
The plot thickens with the deceptions and twists, along with the mystery of Jack's unusual heritage. Each new turn brings more hilarity and a consistent stream of witty lines, delivered perfectly by the cast. Two notable side parts are Cecily's governess, Miss Prism (Anna Massey) and the rector of Jack's estate, Dr. Chasuble (Tom Wilkinson). Miss Prism, in particular, manages to annoy and amuse me with every scene.
|Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.|
Don't expect this story to be on the same level as a Jane Austen (my standard for all excellence) because Wilde didn't write it that way - this is not "character" piece, as there is hardly any character depth or development. It's not very intellectual, and there is no attempt to be serious. It is very simply a blithe romantic comedy with well-scripted hilarity. It might be silly, but I unabashedly enjoy it.
Lady Bracknell: You seem to be displaying signs of triviality.
Jack: On the contrary, Aunt Augusta. I've now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being Ernest.
|Gwendolyn: In matters of utmost importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.|