LOS ANGELES — When on his deathbed, the great British actor Edmund Kean remarked that dying isn't difficult, it's comedy that's hard. With that keenly in mind, British director Oliver Parker brings Oscar Wilde's well-known light-as-a-bubble play to the screen, "The Importance of Being Earnest," the first film version in half a century.
The central conceit of the play that two wealthy English girls would only marry a man with the Christian name of Earnest sets the tone, Mr. Parker says. The movie, starring Reese Witherspoon, Rupert Everett, and Judi Dench, opens in New York and Los Angeles May 22 and then in wide release May 31.
"All roads lead to that Rome," says the director, who is fresh from a well-received period-film version of "An Ideal Husband," Oscar Wilde's political comedy. "You have to make that matter. Like all Wilde's plays, you have to look at the world through that prism and realize there are worlds beneath it."
The echoes of Shakespeare's lovers in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" are clear, he says, from the contrast between the rationality and rush of city life to the lush timelessness of country living to the mistaken-identity quandary that drives the plot to its giddy conclusion.
"There is something sweetly mythical about the whole thing," he says, where what's on the surface is like an iconic marker, taking the audience deeper into the inner lives of characters who can't or aren't allowed by societal restrictions to say what they really mean.
"We set about creating a world where you're more conscious of the environment and what is lurking beneath all those facades," Parker says. "It becomes clear that what's going on is a demand that people respect each other's desires, no matter how lunatic they may be."
This tension between inner desires and outer realities drives the comedy, he says. "There's no substitute for getting into what's driving the characters, because with good romantic comedy, there's always something at stake."
The playwright himself dubbed the piece "a trivial comedy for serious people, or a serious comedy for trivial people." To make comedy work, the production must explore both sides, says Parker, who began his career as an actor. "The degree to which you can take it seriously ... it becomes funnier."
The Victorian time period is important, he adds. "Playing these characters with more serious intent very often releases more humor with slightly hysterical tones that were true of that time."
Casting the film was particularly challenging, Parker says. The roles demand the ability to handle farce as well as period language and costumes.
"It's a bit like a 1940s screwball comedy. You have to be able to cast somebody who can handle loads of comedy," he says. "You just trust them to ... make it their own by getting under the skin of the characters or ... it can be just awful."
Skill with Wilde's language is vital, too. "I'm astonished at the intensity of his writing. He can come across as brittle, but the words are a challenge to come into a deeper humanity.... "Wilde's philosophy burns through everything. He has this huge compassion...."
Making a romantic comedy that's also a costume piece may seem to be a risky move in Hollywood, but Parker says he believes in the combination: "I love the notion of a period piece being bloody funny."