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Historic Moments in Indie Filmmaking

Three period-piece summer releases are classic exercises in offering adult alternatives to the blockbusters

June 30, 2002|BILL DESOWITZ

In "The Importance of Being Earnest" (currently in theaters), writer-director Oliver Parker subdues the legendary satire of playwright Oscar Wilde to unleash a quieter, gentler energy about the role of fantasy in our lives. In "The Emperor's New Clothes," based on Simon Leys' delightful novel about the reinvention of Napoleon (opening Friday), writer-director Alan Taylor stresses the importance of relinquishing unrealistic dreams and embracing who we really are.

And in "Possession," the adaptation (opening Aug. 30) of A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning romantic novel about the differences between Victorian society and ours, writer-director Neil LaBute explores emotional disconnection.

These films are the epitome of summer counter-programming, indie-style: wit, nostalgia and serious soul-searching.

"Wilde was at his best when revealing the hypocrisy of the upper classes," Parker observes. "His ambiguities and paradoxes about identity are very modern. But after 100 years, the target has slightly changed, and I drifted more toward the universal. Through the benefit of time, Wilde comes across as a more compassionate figure, so we're tapping into the humanity in our own lighthearted way, while abiding by his code of the comedy of manners."

After tuning up with Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" in 1999, Parker felt more confident tackling this more daunting iconoclastic classic. Set at the start of the 20th century, "Earnest" stars Colin Firth as Jack Worthing, a bored English country bachelor, who invents a more roguish identity when staying in London. Together with his ne'er-do-well partner in crime, Algy Moncreef (played by Rupert Everett), they try to pull off a romantic deception to win the hearts of a rebellious aristocrat (Frances O'Connor) and Worthing's romantically sheltered niece (Reese Witherspoon).

"I kept thinking about 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' with its mistaken identity and incredible revelations--how people are much more uninhibited in the country. In the theater, the play's performed too arch," he contends. "It's lost some of its irreverence and outrage. And the original 1952 film version is a bit stuffy. I wanted to shake it up and blow off the dust, which is hard to do because the Wilde purists refuse to cut you any slack."

While trying to remain faithful to the spirit of Wilde, Parker has definitely added some modern touches that have ticked off Wilde fans, such as the use of jazz music before its time and having O'Connor and Witherspoon behave progressively ahead of their time as well. "Funnily enough, the more I worked on it, the more I focused on the metaphor of women obsessed with finding a man named Ernest. Women still fantasize about their ideal man, and I explored the older generation being more repressed and institutionally disconnected from the younger.

"I also went back to an earlier four-act version of the play to develop the romance" between the niece's tutor (Anna Massey) and the local clergyman (Tom Wilkinson), Parker says. "It's an eclectic bunch to break up the theatrical English stranglehold, and everyone shuffles to find their place in the balance of the ensemble."

Meanwhile, Taylor ("Palookaville," "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under") and LaBute ("In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors") digress from their usual urban angst to explore the lost art of romanticism.

In "The Emperor's New Clothes," Napoleon (Ian Holm) trades places with a double and returns to France, only to be denied his destiny when nobody believes who he really is. He then falls in love with an impoverished widow (Iben Hjeile). It's a fairy tale, pure and simple, but one that poignantly punctures the myth of Napoleon and presents him as a redeemably humble man. "It was an odd choice for me as a very New York indie director," Taylor says. "But what I liked about Leys' novel ["The Death of Napoleon"] was its dreamlike quality and poetry. Unfortunately, it was something that was lost in the painful process of translation with [screenwriter] Kevin Molony. But I attempted to retain the flavor of the book by including a scene where Napoleon winds up in an asylum filled with lunatics who think they're Napoleon. But most of all, I deepened the romance and resolved Napoleon's personal dilemma."

Taylor, who earned a master's degree in European history from Columbia University before becoming a filmmaker, refuses to apologize for "hijacking Napoleon and the 19th century" for his own fanciful purpose. He sees Napoleon as a figure living in a glorious past and an imaginary present who ignores the real world around him.

"I always had Ian in mind," Taylor says of the actor who has played Napoleon twice before, in "Time Bandits" and in the British TV series "Napoleon and Love." "He looks great in that uniform and is so good at undercutting his grand gestures. The big lesson here and in all of my films is learning to be at peace with the small world that you have."

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