10 March 2014

An Earnest Adaptation

Note: I originally published this post on The Sparrow Tree Square Blog on February 24, 2012. It is one of a handful of Sparrow Tree Square posts that I'm moving over here, where they better fit.

I absolutely adore film and television adaptations of classic works of literature. For quite a few years now, my mother and I have made a tradition of chasing away our post-Christmas blues with a massive marathon of our favorite adaptations, most of which are based on the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Recently, though, we've been expanding our miniature film festival to include some more variety. Last year, this brought the addition of an adaptation that has become one of the highlights of our winter viewing: the 2002 version of The Importance of Being Earnest, based on the play by Oscar Wilde.

I had already read Wilde's play and loved it before trying this adaptation, so my expectations going in were high. On the whole I was excited about the cast, which includes Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell, Rupert Everett as Algy, and Colin Firth as Jack, but I was a little concerned with the casting of American actress Reese Witherspoon as Cecily. I was also wary of any changes the filmmakers may have decided to make to the original script -- the play was already so perfect in my opinion that I didn't want to see anything altered.

Film is different from live performance, though, and offers some unique opportunities that aren't logistically possible to achieve on stage. The filmmakers took advantage of this by adding some new touches to the play that, on the whole, I found much in keeping with the spirit of the original. While you won't find Algy arriving at Jack's estate via hot air balloon in a stage performance of Earnest, it seemed like the sort of grand gesture that would appeal to Algy. I also enjoyed Cecily's fantasy sequences, where she imagines herself as a fair lady and Algy as a dashing knight -- they seemed a natural extension of the flights of fancy that lead Cecily to concoct a detailed romance with a man she's never met. The film even restores a subplot involving Algy's creditors that Wilde himself had cut from the play.

The filmmakers also made some interesting choices with the music score of the film. While both the play and the film are set in the late nineteenth century, the music from the film has a jazzy, 1930's sound. I think the soundtrack reflects the energy of the play admirably, in a way that a more traditional score could not have. I also adore the song that Algy and Jack sing to Cecily and Gwendolyn, which is based on a poem of Wilde's. Here's the full version played over the end credits

Overall, I think that this version of The Importance of Being Earnest really gets Wilde's wit and humor. While there are just one or two changes that I myself would not have made (namely one sequence involving a tattoo), they don't detract from the quality of the film as a whole. I highly recommend that fans of Wilde give this film a try -- those who enjoy the film can also seek out the 1999 version of Wilde's play An Ideal Husband, featuring the same director and composer of this film and again starring Rupert Everett.

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