London bachelor John (Jack) Worthing who has a murky background and his roguish spendthrift friend Algernon (Algy) Moncrieff pursue romance but are each deceitful in their own ways. Jack who is guardian of his beloved niece Cecily Cardew at an estate outside London invents a brother named Ernest so he can escape to London whenever the whim hits and hook up with pal Algy. Both bachelors are suitors but their lies and the rampant snobbery of the day get in the way. Jack hopes to marry Gwendolen Fairfax but her rigidly elitist and dominating mother Lady Bracknell is put off by Jack’s lowly origins. (Parents unknown he was found as a package at Victoria Station.) While Jack locks horns with Bracknell in London Algy journeys to Jack’s country home to woo Cecily and gains entree by claiming to be Ernest Jack’s invented brother. When Jack returns to the country to announce that the fictive Ernest is dead he must confront pal Algy who has successfully re-invented himself as Ernest and a host of deceits. But delicious revelations unleashed by the devoted nanny-turned-tutor Miss Prism save the day for both fib-prone suitors. Happily Cecily and Gwendolen share their suitors’ romantic inclinations and tolerance for tall tales.
The burning question in many minds is no doubt whether Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde) the only American in this veddy Brit film can carry an English accent. The answer is a resounding “yes.” Her success as privileged ingenue Cecily in both accent and overall performance is all the more commendable because she is surrounded by some of the brightest and best of Brit acting talent. Colin Firth as Jack and Rupert Everett as Algy are seductively charming and appealing as the spoiled but smitten bachelors. Frances O’Connor as Gwendolyn convinces as the very “upper ” but rebellious daughter of the imperious Lady Bracknell. And Dame Judi Dench as the formidably snotty and harsh Bracknell is scary enough for a horror film. Tom Wilkinson recently nominated for his role in In the Bedroom is appropriately genteel as the clergyman with a soft spot for Miss Prism sweetly portrayed by vet English actress Anna Massey brother of Donald and daughter of Raymond both legendary thesps. Art house fans will most appreciate the fine cast that armed with Wilde’s words and ideas valiantly battles the film’s excesses in a mission to entertain. As a dream ensemble they help put across Wilde’s amusing story of mistaken identity naughty habits and laughable upper-crust foibles.
Oliver Parker was obviously on a shorter leash when he earlier directed his more disciplined and faithful adaptation of another Oscar Wilde play An Ideal Husband. With Earnest Parker has gone auteur with a fury by crafting a bloated overproduced extravagantly opened-up version of the concise play that Wilde would hardly recognize. Here the lavish costumes sumptuous sets overbearing musical soundtrack and Parker-invented flights into fantasy (Cecily has recurrent daydreams of a white knight coming to the rescue) and flashback (Bracknell has a Parker-minted lowly-dance-hall chorine past) all but drown out Wilde’s streamlined savage wit and whack at upper-class conceits. Still Parker allows his illustrious performers to shine through all the fluffery.