Those of us of a certain age can sympathize with poor Cecily (Reese Witherspoon), a prisoner of grammar lessons taught by the indefatigable and assertively dull Miss Prism (Anna Massey). Oscar Wilde certainly did, when he put her in The Importance of Being Earnest. Yet those tedious days of Latin and Greek rote recitation in his youth served Wilde very well indeed. Where else could he have gotten that sense of the perfectly crafted phrase? The ancients had fewer words to play with, so they seemed better at making each of them count. At least surviving manuscripts feature no equivalent to our flatulent interpolations like like or y’know. Wilde learned his lessons from the masters. His characters can use their tongues to flay the pretentious at 50 feet.
Wilde’s classical arca clearly contains more than a reverence for words. The Importance of Being Earnest strikes roots in the New Comedy of the Greeks and the raunchy Latin comedies of Terence and Plautus. The plot revolves around love-smitten suitors, separated by class distinctions and drawn into improbable schemes to outwit the stodgy guardians of the social caste system. The beautiful slave-girl and infatuated aristocrat of Roman intrigue provides Wilde with a handy template for the class-conscious subjects of Queen Victoria, some of whom had titles but little money and others who had no titles but mucho moolah. Each group had few scruples about slithering its way into the other’s good graces through an expedient marriage.
What far-fetched schemes these ancient playwrights concocted! Accidentally mistaken identities and outright impostures, bribery, extortion and blackmail, gods swinging out of the wings or messengers panting onto center stage with wildly improbable revelations: Lo, the slave-girl who has bewitched the prince is in fact a princess whose nurse had hidden her from pirates as a baby! The Ernest of the plot is actually two people, neither of whom exists, but that’s a minor inconvenience. Sex makes the whirl go around, but unlike the Romans, Victorians speak as though they lack the essential body parts for such intrigue. Plautus had no such inhibitions. He could be writing monologues for the Comedy Central network today. Wilde, who did hard time in the slammer for indecency, had to be more discreet, and his studied discretion is itself quite funny.
The Importance of Being Earnest, the most recent film reincarnation of the Wilde and woolly farce, preserves the feathered arrows of the past, both ancient and Victorian, while aiming laser-guided missiles at the present. It’s Masterpiece Theater as presented by Monte Python. In its conflation of eras, it’s a good deal like Tony Richardson’s version of Tom Jones (1963yes, it was that long ago). In that novel, Henry Fielding fired his blunderbuss at social absurdities in 18th-century England, but Richardson rearmed the text with smart bombs redirected toward the England of his own day. Remember those days? The symptoms of global nervous breakdown of the 1960’s were first showing up on Carnaby Street. Skirts got short, hair got long; music got loud, curricula got soft; Steal This Book (if you can read).
As screenwriter and director, Oliver Parker has done his own retrofitting of Wilde’s ordnance. The very proper characters have enough starch in collar and corset to stiffen a circus tent, but the musical score by Charlie Mole features a ragtime beat: very American, very incongruous, and ever since The Sting (1973) and the Scott Joplin revival, very modern. On occasion, the camera abandons the narrative point of view and slinks back into Cecily’s Pre-Raphaelite fantasy life. Why not? Knights clanking around in armor and blushing maidens stoop-shouldered under cumulus clouds of red curls hold much more interest for a romantic teenager than grammar lessons. When Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench) waxes most eloquent about breeding and lineage, a sly flashback suggests that her climb to the peerage began in the chorus line. Ah, hormones, sweet hormones even for Lord Bracknell. Wilde wouldn’t hear of such scandalous doings, but Parker can’t resist.
The anachronisms in technique give the film a decidedly modern feel that some may find a bit jarring. But let’s be open-minded about Parker’s bold jazzing-up of Earnest. Leave the classic style of period re-creation to the Merchant-Ivory factory. The lush cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts compares quite nicely to that of M-I Inc., but Oliver Parker’s tinkerings serve a clearly subversive purpose. He uses music and subjective editing to create an apparently safe observation deck for present-day audiences to view Wilde’s universe at a distance, objectively, as though they were touring some remote, exotic land. We’re here, with our modern film styles, but they’re there, in the fussy drawing room of an English country home. But just when we felt secure in our spectatorship, the image bounces back to the present, as though that remote universe, so strange and so funny, really mirrors the foibles of the present age. Playing with the narrative style keeps viewers from getting sucked into the world of the fictional characters and thus losing their vantage point on us. When Oliver Parker is done, we have seen the snobs, and the snobs is us.
One other reason for the changes strikes me as significant. The self-conscious sound and camera make the film more cinematic. Obviously, Wilde wrote a play for the stage, not the screen. The legitimate theater, I believe, holds more in common with television than with cinema. Television and the stage are rhetorical media, in that they address audiences in confined, intimate settings and invite them to engage in dialogue by supplying the missing pieces through imagination. Film, by contrast, is spectacular: images and sounds are larger than life and invite contemplation rather than dialogue. We engage a play or a television program; we admire a film. Switching points of view, alternating between subjective and objective, adding ragtime music, the descent of a suitor in a hot-air balloon, having a heroine race to her love in a vintage automobile (only to be overtaken by a couple on a tandem bicycle) would provide static on the stage. Such business would detract from the words and disrupt the role of the imagination. On the screen they add to the effect for an audience invited to sit back and watch the spectacle unfold.
Actors on the stage (and television) connect with the audience; actors on film connect with a camera. Crossing over can be tricky business, and many actors don’t even try. Try to imagine John Wayne on the stage. And in turn, big-voiced stage singers from Ethel Merman to Roberta Peters and Bibi Neuwirth just haven’t been able to generate their chemistry with their audiences in films, although each of them has been quite effective on television. This principle, if it has any validity, makes the achievement of Earnest all the more impressive. And the cast in The Importance of Being Earnest makes the transition quite well, thank you. Oliver Parker’s conception allows fine actors, many with stage experience, to bring Wilde’s deliciously wicked stage language to life in front of the camera. The words alone provide a garden of delights for the literate.
The actors make the film work. The romantic plot offers a naïve symmetry and obvious predictability, but the ritual nature of the proceedings allows us to concentrate on the characters. Colin Firth and Rupert Everett play lovable cads, whose good side will be brought out by true love, surely. Frances O’Connor, as the sophisticated (she smokes cigarettes and drives a car!) Gwendolyn, and Reese Witherspoon, as the innocent Cecily, provide credible motivation for reform. Tom Wilkinson, last seen as a New England doctor in In the Bedroom, plays Dr. Chasuble, the bumbling rural vicar, who becomes unbumbled enough to notice Miss Prism, eventually. Over all these amorous shenanigans presides the intrepid Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench), a pocket battleship of a woman, who could intimidate De Gaulle with an arch of eyebrow and a flare of nostril. The entire cast has fun with the film, and their enjoyment is contagious.
Few movies these days stake much of claim to fun. As I watched this one, I realized that perhaps those Masterpiece Theater miniseries and the Merchant-Ivory style have begun to grow stale simply because they lost their sense of fun. In stressing quality, they risk treating their material with too much respect. Oliver Parker brings us into his grandmother’s house to admire her Belleek china tea set, but he lets us slide down her banister too.