Rated PG - Running Time: 1:37 - Released 5/17/02

There are some writers whose works are so great, one just can't resist doing another update every so many years. Oscar Wilde, author of The Importance Of Being Earnest, is one such artist. Wilde's text, updated this time by director Oliver Parker (who also directed the delightful 1999 version of Wilde's An Ideal Husband), is as effervescent as ever, with every word chosen carefully and calculated for maximum effect. Its cast is every bit up to the task of interpreting that text, including Rupert Everett (who starred in Husband), Colin Firth, and the always impeccable Judi Dench. The ability to compress such a hilariously complex story into 97 minutes of film is a tribute both to Wilde's astounding economy with words and Parker's mastery of his source material.

The plot, as with any of Wilde's, is far too complicated to summarize in a few paragraphs, but suffice it to say the surreptitious adoption of the name "Ernest" by two men in turn-of-the-century London, neither of whom can legitimately claim it as his own, serves as the central hub around which the entire story revolves. The first "Ernest" is really Jack Worthing (Firth), who uses the pseudonym while in the city, allowing him to run up astronomical bills at food and lodging establishments without being prosecuted since he goes by his real name when he returns to his estate in the country. It is the name, however, that causes the beautiful young Gwendolen Fairfax (Frances O'Connor) to fall in love with him, stating that she's always wanted to marry a man named Ernest, a name which embodies all the qualities of truth, honesty, and fair play. However, Gwen's mother, Lady Bracknell (Dench), is not so quickly enamored, especially when she finds out "Ernest" doesn't even know the identity of his parents, having been abandoned as an infant in Victoria Station. She decrees that Gwendolyn will not have permission to marry him until he can come up with some appropriate family lineage.

Meanwhile, Jack's London friend Algernon Moncrieff (Everett), or "Algy," who also seems to make a living by giving the slip to his creditors, discovers Jack's clever ruse and decides to use it to his own advantage. Having fallen in love with Jack's young charge, Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon), he goes to Jack's country estate masquerading as "Ernest," whom Jack's family and staff have never met, but who carries a dubious reputation as Jack's irresponsible younger brother. Cecily, who enjoys a fanciful imagination, is happy to accept Algy's advances, admitting that she herself has always wanted to marry an "Ernest." The trouble occurs when all the above characters converge on the country estate, and the matter of exactly who is who must be resolved one way or another.

What can I say about such a delightful piece of cinema? This movie, with its impeccable cast, lush location scenery and well-researched set and costume design, will serve as an excellent companion piece to Parker's Husband, offering a quality virtually indistinguishable from that film. Everett, whose character is virtually identical to his part in that movie, is definitely in his element, and Firth is equally enjoyable as his stuffier counterpart. The ladies, moreover, are exquisite in their turn-of-the-century mannerisms, embodying, on the parts of O'Connor and Witherspoon, the carefree air of young debutantes, and, in the case of Dame Dench, the extreme propriety of any Wilde heroine of that age group and social standing. If you care for movies in which the written word takes precedence over fast cars and digital wizardry, do not miss The Importance Of Being Earnest. I can earnestly tell you you won't regret it. ****½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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