Bil’s rating (out of 5): B. USA/United Kingdom, 2002. Miramax, Ealing Studios, Film Council, Newmarket Capital Group, Fragile Films. Screenplay by Oliver Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde. Cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts. Produced by Barnaby Thompson. Music by Charlie Mole. Production Design by Luciana Arrighi. Costume Design by Maurizio Millenoti. Film Editing by Guy Bensley.
It is quite obvious from watching this hideous adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s signature comedy play that it has been directed by someone who doesn’t in any way understand the material he’s working with. Of course, this should come as no surprise since director Oliver Parker has previously mangled Wilde (his An Ideal Husband is spritely and enjoyable but not as funny as the master scribe’s original work) and also Shakespeare (his Othello starring Laurence Fishburne is particularly dry). Parker has inflicted his worst wound with this absolutely useless film, one that is only ever enjoyable in the moments when the characters speak Wilde’s original dialogue and remind the audience of the brilliant work it originates from. Even without knowing the play, however, one can easily spot the inane visuals that Parker has needlessly added (dream sequences and offensive character details that were better left unstated). Colin Firth plays a loveable gentleman who lives half his life on a beautiful country estate under his own name Jack, and the other half traveling to London where he pretends to be his own fictitious brother Ernest to have the excuse to visit the lovely lady Gwendolen (Frances O’Connor), with whom he is enamoured. His best friend Algernon (Rupert Everett) is desperate to get closer to Jack’s young ward Cecily (Reese Witherspoon), a pretty young thing who lives in the countryside being educated on Jack’s estate by her spinster tutor (Anna Massey). Things get a little complicated when Everett shows up at the country home pretending to be the bogus brother Ernest, leaving Cecily and Gwendolen in cahoots over two men whom they think is one man but who in actual fact doesn’t exist. Overseeing all this ridiculous commotion is the world-weary and wise Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench), Gwendolen’s mother and Algernon’s aunt, who creates a series of barriers to all the romantic connections before the finale where she provides the key to the obstacles being obliterated. The marvelous cast is excellently assembled, but they are all so badly directed by Parker and the proceedings suffer so from his complete lack of energy that these great actors are mostly just reminding you of their better performances in better films: Everett seems to be living off the royalties from his Ideal Husband role, Dench’s Bracknell has been given so little importance by the filmmaker that she is a throwaway old lady character much less interesting than most of the actress’s work in recent years, and Firth isn’t nearly as sexy and befuddled as he was in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Besides this, where are all the beautiful bright colours that Ideal Husband was saturated in? Julianne Moore’s flaming red hair or Cate Blanchett’s lush salon? Here the rooms all look like they’ve been lit with nothing but a grey English sky; the beautiful costumes are lost in the mess, the furniture is limp to look at, even Witherspoon’s muddy-coloured wig is a constant disappointment. This film is a sad waste of time for all involved, especially its audience.