Local cinemas. Oliver Parker, film: “Written by Mr. Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde”
The New York Times review, by Stephen Holden (May 22, 2002) noted the film is rated PG and cautioned that it “has sexual innuendo.” One cannot be too careful these days, evidently, in the context of millions of dollars of damage suits over the conduct of (mostly) pedophile priests. “O tempora! O mores!” commented the friend who sent me a clipping of Holden’s review.
Meanwhile, I transcribe my side of an email exchange with a former student who had written to me about the Parker film:
I just saw the Earnest film myself. The casting was quite good, I thought, and I did also like Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell (though I’d love to see Maggie Smith play that role some day). As for the film, sumptuous costumes and settings, but I thought Parker’s anxiety about how to make a film of such a play showed in the way he suffered from (what I call) the Zeffirelli syndrome. Have you seen Zeffirelli’s Hamlet? First, Parker cuts one third of the text (the play ran only 1 hour 35 minutes: thus, an hour cut from the text — more, if you consider that he imported some things from the separate, four-act version). Then he takes major segments, like a Hamlet soliloquy, and slips them into two- or three-line segments, and sets each segment in a different location and then proceeds to put the soliloquy virtually back together by means of quick cuts from one place to the next. To my mind, this decimates the dramatic momentum, because it caters to moviegoers’ notoriously short attention span and notorious predilection for the visual and the aural over the coherent movement of action. This is MTV for grown-ups. I don’t want and don’t need to be transported to an archery range for 7.5 seconds to see Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen each launch an arrow, while Algy refers to them. What does archery tell us about these two characters? (Did they stop off there for a few rounds after visiting Lady Harbury? Ridiculous.) Archery tells us much less than it tells us about Parker’s near-empty pocket of location options. A milliner would have been a much better choice, considering the formidable creations Lady Bracknell wears. The worst offense was the reversal of the Army List business. In the play, Jack looks up his father and discovers that his own name is really “Ernest John”: he has been telling the truth all along, and only now has been found out. In Parker’s stupid reversal, Jack makes up the right name out of his own head, in defiance of what he has discovered in the List; we then close in on the entry in the List — and it turns out to be “John.” So the audience is willy-nilly made party to a shameless lie and Jack never gets found out for it: a violation of all the rules of come-uppance for farce and comedy.
Grumble, grumble. But there were parts I did like quite a lot. Can’t exactly remember what they were. . . . Oh. The dog cart was good. Miss Prism was sweet and charming — just the sort of absent-minded nursemaid who would switch a baby for a manuscript. Canon Chasuble, in Franz Schubert eyeglasses, was okay too. The Algy fitted the Wildean criterion of having nothing but looking everything. The Jack was a little morose for my taste; looked a bit disreputable, a bit uncomfortable in white tie and tails: too much like a grown-up foundling — which he supposedly is but really isn’t. To his credit, Parker experimented with putting some good nuggets from the four-act version of the play into this mostly three-act version, notably the so-called “Gribsby” scene, in which Ernest (Algy masquerading as him) is arrested for debt, having run up restaurant bills at the Savoy to the tune of £762. 12. 10. But it almost seems to put the fear of God into Algy, who as Wilde’s suave character is much too cool to be ruffled by such a thing. (Remember, he doesn’t eat muffins in an agitated manner because the butter might get on his cuffs.) (By the way, “Savoy” is not in the first edition, but rather “Willis’s,” an ultra-cozy upper-class spot only a few doors along King Street from the theatre, the St. James’s, where the play opened in February 1895: in other words, a true “inside” reference for the first audience. The Savoy Hotel and Restaurant had not yet been built; once it came on line, it starts to show up in subsequent scripts. No matter, in this case, except that Parker doesn’t really capture the delicious sense of being an insider in this society. He needed to pay more attention to Lady Bracknell’s line “Don’t speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.” Jack, who has lost both of his parents, is therefore an outsider and, what’s worse, an apparent foundling. The play is about how you have to try your hardest to get into Society, because outside it lies . . . bad taste. (Remember: Jack, according to Algy, has no taste in neckties.) And vegetarians. And other barbarities. Just getting the costumes right is not good enough.
But, oh, the Gwendolen! Deliciously good casting (her name was Frances O’Connor). What’s more, she looked remarkably like Judi Dench, her “mother.” Profiles very similar. The Cecily, Reese Witherspoon, not quite as brilliant casting, but a good choice also. When it comes to putting Wilde on screen, you win some, you lose some. If you win some at all, it’s a plus. Parker won some. I’m not sorry I saw it, and of course my standards are impossibly high when it comes to this subject.