Oscar Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people” was last filmed in 1952 by Anthony Asquith, a somewhat overlooked British director who specialized in intelligent transfers of respected theatrical works (Pygmalion, The Browning Version). That version — brilliantly cast with Michael Redgrave, Dorothy Tutin, Edith Evans and Margaret Rutherford — remains the perfect encapsulation of Wilde’s play. Edith Evans’ portrayal of Lady Bracknell is still the yardstick by which all interepretations of the character are measured. (Glenda Jackson even managed to get a laugh out of doing an impression of Dame Edith in Ken Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance in 1988.) As a result, anyone tackling this material is apt to come under more than usual scrutiny — and such has certainly been the lot of writer-director Oliver Parker. The primary criticism lodged against Parker is that his isn’t the 50-year-old film, and that it plays fast-and-loose with Wilde’s play. The first charge is absurd, since this obviously isn’t meant to be the Asquith film. The second charge is true to a degree. Parker “opens up” the play by rearranging some of the scenes, interpolating flashbacks and fantasies, and generally moving the action from its drawing room settings to a wider variety of locales. It’s all playfully experimental, but it’s not so radical as the Richard Loncraine/Ian McKellen Richard III from 1995, the aforementioned Salome’s Last Dance, or even the 1934 Max Reinhardt/William Dieterle version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It preserves most of Wilde’s play. Certainly, all the best-remembered and most quotable of Wilde’s lines have been carefully preserved: e.g, “I don’t play accurately — anyone can play accurately — but I play with wonderful expression,” and “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.” The film also preserves the play with just the right touch of respectful disrespect of which Wilde might himself have approved. Probably the most radical addition to the proceedings involves turning a bit of Wildean poetry not found in the original play into a song used to calm the ire of the tale’s young ladies, when they learn they are in love with two gentlemen who are not only not named Ernest (a mystifying requirement of each as the only suitable name for a mate), but for whom the truth is an elastic concept at best. I can’t quite decide if Parker goes too far in having this turn into a miniature production number, or if he doesn’t go far enough. In either case, it’s an attempt that’s more laudable in concept than execution. Most of Parker’s departures and embellishments work quite well, making good-natured use of the medium of film to enhance the proceedings, as in the deft cut from Cecily (Frances O’Connor) practicing archery to Jack Worthing (Colin Firth) responding as if he was on the receiving end of her arrow. Deleting some comments on the “death” of Jack’s fictional younger brother, Ernest, and giving Jack a prop urn with his sibling’s “ashes” trades one quip for no less than three delicious visual gags — a more than equitable exchange. Parker has undeniably crafted a visually sumptuous film, making excellent use of the house and grounds of one of the Stately Homes of England (recognizable to savvy film fans as Madame von Meck’s estate in The Music Lovers), and occasionally creating images that could pass for the works of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. The cast is blessedly in the spirit of things, especially Colin Firth, who approaches the character of Jack Worthing with just the right blend of seriousness and mockery. Judi Dench very wisely underplays Lady Bracknell, offering an interesting and valid alternative to Edith Evans’ classic bravura attack on the role. In the end, it’s a worthy attempt at bringing Wilde’s most brilliant comedy to the screen. Even though Parker brings in one final gag that is most definitely not from the play, it holds true to Wilde’s own vision of a pure comedy with absolutely no meaning, and no desire to be anything but a polished, sophisticated entertainment that is in love with its own cleverness.
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