Dir: Oliver Parker. UK/US. 2002. 97 mins.

Three years ago, writer-director Oliver Parker and the UK's Fragile Films re-invented Oscar Wilde's relatively obscure An Ideal Husband for the big screen, opening out the play to delightful effect and earning critical plaudits as well as some impressive box office grosses ($18.5m in the US alone). Parker and co's similar approach to Wilde's most celebrated stage work produces a very different effect: usually presented as a frothy farce, The Importance Of Being Earnest here comes across as a curiously subdued romantic comedy with dramatic and social satiric undertones. The elements - a handsome period setting, a classy Anglo-American cast and the same early summer, counter-programming US release slot as An Ideal Husband - still suggest considerable box office potential. But it's doubtful that audiences, particularly audiences familiar with Anthony Asquith's breezy 1952 film version of the play, will embrace this new Earnest (which opens first in the US on May 22, with Miramax distributing) with anything like the enthusiasm they showed for Parker's previous Wilde adaptation.

Designed to give the play a more cinematic scope, the film opens in a dingy, almost sinister late-Victorian London. The London settings are the province of debt-dodging man-about-town Algy Moncrieff (Everett) and his friend Ernest (Firth), the urban alter ego - and fictitious wayward brother - of orphaned country gentleman Jack Worthing. In town, Ernest/Jack is wooing Algy's cousin, society girl Gwendolen (O'Connor). However he soon comes up against the barrier of Gwendolen's formidably snobbish mother Lady Bracknell (Dench).

In its second half, the film shifts to summery country locales and takes on the air of a Shakespearean pastoral romance. The gardens and sun-dappled rooms of Jack's elegant mansion are the province of Cecily (Witherspoon), Jack's romantically minded young ward, and Miss Prism (Massey), Cecily's absent-minded spinster tutor. The characters are brought together, and the stage is set for the comedy of errors climax, when Algy - posing as Ernest - pays Cecily an unexpected visit, Jack returns home from the city, Gwendolen arrives looking for her Ernest and Lady Bracknell appears in search of her daughter.

In adapting the play for the screen, Parker stays faithful to Wilde's familiar text (though he also uses some material from the author's little-staged longer version of the work) but spreads the delivery of the dialogue out over a variety of locations, from a noisy burlesque theatre and the daunting halls of Lady Bracknell's house in London to a dreamy boat ride in the countryside. The director's attempt to give the play a contemporary sensibility and to shed light on the characters' internal lives does give rise to some interesting twists: Lady Bracknell's interview with Gwendolen's prospective suitor Ernest, for example, becomes a chilling display of class consciousness and Miss Prism's awkward romance with country clergyman Canon Chasuble (Wilkinson) is expanded to give the story an additional romantic angle. But the approach also produces some weirdly incongruous moments - like Gwendolen's visit to a tattoo parlour to have Ernest's name inscribed on her backside and Jack and Algy's jazzy serenade to their temporarily estranged lovers.

Most damagingly, the naturalistic delivery of the text has the effect of dampening the laughs usually produced by Wilde's deliciously witty dialogue. Some of the play's sharpest exchanges are blunted by the naturalistic approach and some of the funniest lines feel as if they are being thrown away for the sake of realism.

The top-flight cast does its best to work with Parker's take on the material and the performances do go some way towards selling the director's vision. Witherspoon (sporting a flawless British accent) and Everett (who also starred in An Ideal Husband) appear most comfortable and Massey and Wilkinson do enjoyable work in their supporting roles. Firth, however, never quite settles into his laddish double-act with Everett. Dench (who played the same role in an eighties British stage production of the play) hints at some interesting depths in Lady Bracknell but her performance doesn't get the support it needs from the rest of the production.

Prod cos: Fragile Films, Ealing Studios, the Film Council, Newmarket Capital Group
Dist: Miramax Films (US).
Intl sales: Good Machine International.
Prod: Barnaby Thompson.
Exec prod: Uri Fruchtmann.
Scr: Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde.
Director of Photography: Tony Pierce-Roberts.
Prod des: Luciana Arrighi.
Ed: Guy Bensley.
Music: Charlie Mole.
Main cast: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O'Connor, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Anna Massey.