We all love Oscar Wilde. He was hilarious, he was dramatic, he was a genius, he knew it, and we’ve all benefited from his brilliance for more than a century. He was also imprisoned for the “crime” of homosexuality, and he died bankrupt and far too young. Given all these things, it feels like we ought to examine his work with a certain seriousness, a weight befitting such a giant. But The Importance of Being Earnest is, at best, a silly little piece of fluff.
Is there subtext? Of course! It’s a biting commentary on the hypocritical and snobbish societal rules of London at the time. And those rules are still close enough to our current social mores that such commentary feels evergreen. Yet even this subtext isn’t very “sub”–the dialogue is quite on the nose: “Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.”
Since the social commentary is right out front, the resulting work, I still say, is a silly little piece of fluff. That’s a compliment. It’s funny, and nonsensical, and sweet. Honestly, we could use more entertainment like this. It’s like sour cotton candy–it’s got a kick, but it still melts in your mouth.
The 2002 movie adaptation stars some heavy hitters–Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson, Frances O’Connor. And Dame Judi Freaking Dench. Being incredible actors, all of them can do a drawing room comedy in their sleep. Writer/Director Oliver Parker, who has directed several Oscar Wilde adaptations, restored some original material–cut by Wilde before the original publication–to the movie. You get the sense, watching this delightful film, that everyone involved was just there to have fun.
The story revolves around two friends, Jack and Algy, who enjoy the bachelor life in London, visiting risqué dance halls, flirting, dining at the Savoy and skipping out on the check. Their friendship is that sort of male bonding that involves mocking and insulting each other in a good-humored way, and Colin Firth and Rupert Everett are convincingly brotastic in the roles.
Intrigue comes in the form of the double lives both are living. Algy, posh by birth but always broke, is forever running from his debtors. He’s also frequently running from his rich Aunt Augusta by pretending he’s got to visit a sick friend named Bunbury in the countryside. Meanwhile, Jack is extremely wealthy, eminently respectable, and lives in a mansion in Hertfordshire with his ward, Cecily. But he pretends he’s got a ne’er-do-well brother named Ernest who is always needing to be bailed out in London. While in London, he himself is Ernest–that’s who Algy knows.
Jack/Ernest wants to marry Algy’s cousin Gwendolen, but Aunt Augusta won’t hear of it because of his curious back story: as a baby, he was found in a handbag at Victoria Station and adopted by the rich old man who raised him. So he doesn’t know his real parentage, and that’s a deal breaker for Aunt Augusta. Algy tries to help him propose to Gwendolen, but is also convinced that Ernest is lying about something and that the truth could help Algy make some money.
Soon enough, Algy finds out that Ernest is really Jack. Gwendolen doesn’t, though, because she’s adamant that she could only ever love a man named Ernest.
Sick of all the pretending–and worried it will be found out–Jack decides to kill his fake brother Ernest. Too late. Algy has already gone out to Jack’s Hertfordshire estate and introduced himself to Cecily as Jack’s brother Ernest.
You will be unsurprised to learn that Cecily has always assumed she would fall in love with her guardian’s rake of a brother, and also that she feels she could only ever love a man named Ernest.
The plot works like a snowball rolling downhill–slow at first, the timing and humor a little uncertain, but eventually picking up speed and building on itself until finally we reach full-on absurdity. The two pairs of lovers tease and quarrel, the women arguing with each other only to immediately become a team when it’s time to argue with the men.
It’s all very breezy and fun, the sheer excellence of Wilde’s dialogue carrying us along even when the stakes are low–there’s never any real doubt that the lovers all do truly love each other. And Aunt Augusta aside, there’s never any real doubt that everyone will be allowed to marry and live happily ever after in the end.
So what makes the romance interesting?
The true love story here, we eventually realize, is the one between Algy and Jack–friends who annoy each other, tussle and fight, and also make each other laugh. Not only that, but they can sing a mean duet. When it’s finally revealed that they aren’t just friends, they’re brothers…well, their joy is beautiful to behold. Because, as a short montage in the moment reminds us, they’ve been (literally) smacking each other about like siblings since we first met them. They’re finding out the mechanics behind it only now, but really, they’ve been brothers all along.
There’s not much more here than the fun of watching actors having fun. The cast is up to the task of delivering lines as sharply as Oscar Wilde would want, and as with any movie in which Judi Dench appears, the best thing in the movie is Judi Dench. The scenery is breathtaking. The costumes are sumptuous. And, as Cecily points out, Algy’s hair is fantastic.
And this is why we all love Oscar Wilde–because he’s still showing us a good time, almost 130 years later.