Written by: Oliver Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde
Directed by: Oliver Parker
Starring: Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Frances O’Connor, Judi Dench
My Advice: Matinee.
Jack Worthing (Firth) lives out in the country, but sometimes has to get away to the city in order to check on his poor, always-in-trouble brother, Ernest. In actuality, Jack is Ernest–he just likes to get away to the city, especially to flirt with Gwendolen (O’Connor), the daughter of Lady Bracknell (Dench). You with me still? Okay, Jack’s–well, Ernest’s–friend in the city is Algernon “Algy” Moncrief (Everett), who discovers Jack’s/Ernest’s deception at the same time he discovers the existence of Jack’s eighteen-year-old ward, Cecily (Witherspoon). When Algy shows up in the country posing as Ernest, a mistaken identity comedy must, of course, ensue.
It’s so refreshing to see more evidence that well-written words in the mouths of capable actors can pay off. First off, we must admit that some liberty was taken with Wilde’s play. Some. To my knowledge, the main thing purists might object to is a tattoo. However, for the most part, we never mind people straying from the source material as long as it is done to some purpose and it works. Well, the good news is that even an unexpected tattoo parlor is funny in this film. Which is good–because the thing is a comedy, after all. It’s also a comedic period piece/costume drama that manages to rise above the form and actually be a Merchant Ivoryesque flick with laughs for people who normally wouldn’t be caught dead watching such a film.
[ad#longpost]The dialogue is delivered with rapid-fire precision and as aforementioned, the cast is perfectly suited to pull the thing off. Firth and Everett spar like two old friends should and are choice in the roles: Firth mostly quiet and thoughtful, Everett more over the top. Witherspoon steps into a troupe of British actors and carries herself quite well, performing my favorite scene from the play (“We shall be like sisters!”) with O’Connor to much delight. Dench apparently has the mutant ability to play The Severe Matriarch in multiple films and never seem to play the same part twice, which is always nice. Also of note is Tom Wilkinson, playing the charming yet befuddled local pastor. And everything, from Dench’s stern countenance to Firth’s abandonment is too tongue in cheek to be taken seriously.
In short, the film works. Hopefully, even though it’s hampered by the stigma of being one of “those Miramax period piece things” and a slow rollout, it’ll get some word of mouth and an audience. Lord knows we could use the masses being exposed to more clever work like this.