A high-rent house of words, The Importance of Being Earnest is built upon a complex pun. Though Juliet Capulet found nothing in a name, characters otherwise known as John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff believe that happiness lies in being Ernest. And to playwright Oscar Wilde, the scourge of Victorian bilge, being earnest is being tedious. "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing," Wilde later wrote, "and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal." Wilde's canny work kills nothing but one's taste for witless summer entertainments.
An inspired trifle in which rum aristocrats trade bons mots about cucumber sandwiches, marriage, and other unpalatable matters, The Importance of Being Earnest is an exercise in airiness that leaves audiences either gasping or giddy. The formidable Lady Bracknell's parting words could serve as epigraph to the entire production. "My nephew," she tells John "Jack" Worthing, "you seem to be displaying signs of triviality." Wilde, who wrote the three-act play in 1893, before disgrace and incarceration weakened his zest for exquisite piffle, made gaudy billboards of those signs. "You never talk anything but nonsense," Jack tells his friend Algernon. "Nobody ever does," replies Algie, who understands that waggish drivel is what drives this drama.
Jack (Firth) is the bachelor master of a magnificent Hertfordshire manor. "I know no one who has a higher sense of duty and responsibility," says Jack's ward, beautiful, eighteen-year-old Cecily Cardew (Witherspoon), who is subjected by her guardian to a tedious regime of edifying tutorials. Evading duty and responsibility, Jack periodically slips away to London, pretending to attend to a nonexistent scapegrace brother he calls Ernest. Once in the wicked city, Jack pretends that he is Ernest, and it is under that name that he woos and wins Gwendolen Fairfax (O'Connor).
Onomastics begin to be sticky when, after Jack/Ernest proposes marriage to Gwendolen, she replies: "My ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest." Gwendolen's redoubtable mother, Lady Bracknell, imposes more conditions on the match, and one of them is that the suitor, who as a baby was abandoned in a handbag in Victoria Station, immediately produce pedigree parents. "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune," she declares; "to lose both looks like carelessness." Meanwhile, Algernon (Everett), who is Gwendolen's cousin and Jack's roguish city chum, eludes debt collectors and makes his way to Jack's country estate. There, pretending to be the master's wayward brother, Ernest, he woos and wins the lovely Cecily. But when Jack, Gwendolen, and Lady Bracknell show up in Hertfordshire, there are suddenly two Ernests too many. Eventually the truth comes out, though, as Algernon observes, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!"
Oliver Parker, who adapted Wilde's An Ideal Husband in 1999, succeeds again in opening up the cinematic possibilities of a drawing-room comedy. The costumes and the set designs, urban and rural, are splendid, and the pacing — both within and between scenes — is deft. This is a story essentially about nothing (except insecurities over class and suppression of the secret self), and in Hertfordshire — as in Huntsville — execution is everything. Though the occasional insertion of silent images representing characters' fantasies seems a bit too earnest, the timing is as crisp as a fresh cucumber sandwich. The cast, including American interloper Witherspoon, delivers its scintillating dialogue with the proper balance of pomposity and mockery.
Concluding with a veritably Shakespearean flourish of multiple marriages, this is a comedy that celebrates bounders and foundlings but ultimately affirms the social order. Though servants get some of the best lines, The Importance of Being Earnest subverts the status quo only in offering us the vision of an alternative world in which words, those shoddy tools, become precision instruments, and they produce a music that is gloriously frivolous. "When I see a spade I call it a spade," says Cecily. But Gwendolen replies: "I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade." Parker's production is all diamonds.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Dir. Oliver Parker; writ. Parker, based on the stage play by Oscar Wilde; feat. Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O'Connor, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Anna Massey (PG)