30 August 2002 | bob the moo
Not perfect but how pleasant to have wit and whimsy back in our multiplexes
In the country, Jack has a large home, an 18 year old ward, Cecily, to look after and is very serious. But in the city he is Earnest a young wag, a dastardly reputation and a good friend in the shape of fellow bachelor Algy. However when he wants to marry his urban love Gwendolen he meets opposition from her guardian Lady Bracknell. Jack tells Gwendolen where his rural home is and Algy overhears. Enticed by Jack's description of his ward Cecily, Algy travels to Jack's home and poses as his made up brother Earnest. However the arrival of Gwendolen puts the cat among the pigeons in a most frightful way that can only be resolved with delightful charm and wit (and some good fortune).
It's been a few years since I saw the original and I've never seen the play or anything like that. So I went to this unsure of what to expect. Would it be a match for the wit of Wilde or would it pander to a lower sense of humour to try and win an easy audience? The answer to me was somewhere in between. The plot is as light and absurd as it should be but it's all done with such a great feeling of whimsy that you really don't mind the various twists at the end.
Wilde's wit is used well and the whole thing is delivered in the manner befitting the material. However it is the variations that don't quite do it. Some of the wit has been watered down to the point that it feels a little flat indeed for 15 minutes I did struggle to get into it because it felt slightly dry at times. More comical than witty scenes are still amusing but I wanted more clever word play etc. However what there is is still better than the spate of crude teen comedies that seem to be never ending. Wilde's wit comes through whenever it is given a chance.
The cast are all good. Everett grated on me at the start as I felt he didn't fit the role but he grew on me very quickly. Firth also seemed strange at the start as the strict Jack but I very quickly got into him and he was suited to his role. O'Conner is a delight and, with a good Witherspoon, works her facial expressions well to betray the longing behind her words of rejection. The scene where the two ladies meet over crumpets to discover both love `Earnest' is hilarious! Wilkinson is good, as is Massey but actors like Fox should never be underused in such a fashion! The prize is Dame Dench. She plays the most unpleasant and unsympathetic character but is easily the best. In her Wilde's wit is the best transposed and she has many, many killer lines.
Overall this is several miles below the classic and does feel a little like Wilde watered down a little to provide more humour that is universal (tattoos etc). Some of the updates don't work as well as they should (all those fantasy scenes get tired after the first few times) but the wit is still better than much of the dross that passes as comedy recently. Oh and Dench steals every scene she's in effortlessly!