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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Dorothy Tutin, Margaret Rutherford
Director:  Anthony Asquith
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  June 25, 2002

“Where are your parents?”

“I have lost both my parents.”

“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as misfortune.  To lose both looks like carelessness.”

Film ***

The works of Oscar Wilde are a fanciful banquet of luscious words melded in beautiful, fanciful ways that unfortunately make them a little more dated than the likes of William Shakespeare…which is why, I think, the Bard’s plays continue to make for such good movies while Wilde never seems to translate as well.  His dramas and comedies were so cynically in tune to their time that when you remove them from their time, they become like a frozen hourglass…indicative of a specific point in history, but no longer able to function with the purpose for which it was designed.

That being said, I’ve always found The Importance of Being Earnest the funniest of all plays; dripping with Wilde’s legendary wit and playful sarcasm.  Which is not to say it’s the best of all comedies…indeed, many criticisms can be made of it.  The characters are flatly drawn, the scenarios improbable, and Wilde’s occasional misogyny can be glimpsed in the silly behavior of his female characters…yet for what the play lacks in dramatic fortitude, it more than makes up for by the author’s keen and wicked insights into the behavioral rituals of the upper crust society of his day and the sheer audacity of its comedy.

This 1952 film version by director Anthony Asquith is as good a motion picture presentation as can be expected…indeed, his solution to the problem of Wilde’s works being less film-worthy is to simply pay the play homage by beginning and ending his film with the appearance of a stage, where the curtain opens and closes as the bookends to the drama.

His cast is workable, though I personally felt the actresses playing Gwendolyn and Cecily (Greenwood and Tutin, respectively) a little old for their roles.  Michael Redgrave plays Jack with an earnest (no pun intended) sensibility, and Michael Denison brings a sly if somewhat understated approach to the legendary Algernon.  But the real scene stealer is Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, who becomes the embodiment of ridiculous pomposity for the sake of the film…she’s absolutely hysterical!

The play, of course, is a kind of much ado about nothing.  Friends Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff are two men of class and distinction who happen to be enjoying a little deception on the side.  In order to come to town whenever he wishes, Jack has invented a false brother, Ernest, whom he pretends to go and see, but actually becomes while in the city.  And Algernon, in order to avoid occasionally unpleasant social duties, has created Bunbury, an oft sick invalid in the country with whom frequent visitations are required.

Jack’s secret is he is in love with Gwendolyn, who turns out to have a fascination for the name Ernest.  His inability to prove his lineage becomes a problem with her guardian, the staunch Lady Bracknell, who is also Algernon’s aunt.  In the meantime, Algernon decides to pay a visit to the country masquerading as Jack’s invented brother Ernest, where he meets and falls in love with Jack’s young ward, Cecily.  Will their double deception blow up in their faces?  Naturally…but Oscar Wilde has much more fun in mind than just that!

“The final act is absolute genius,” the writer has been quoted as saying.  It may be a little too tidy, to be sure, but what do you expect from a comedy?  All’s well that ends well, and in the end in this case, I don’t think anybody learned a thing from their experiences…all the better suited to Wilde’s wit.

I can’t say that the film makes for a better experience than seeing it on the stage, but Asquith at least does a commendable job in maintaining the spirit of Wilde’s work and words, while using a rich Technicolor palate to create a vivid period piece for the ostensibly silly characters and their charades.  It’s a pleasant experience to both look at and listen to.

For those who have never seen nor read the play, this version of The Importance of Being Earnest is probably a good starting point…but if you enjoy it, you owe it to yourself to seek out the printed version and read it.  There, you’ll find choice bits of witticism that were not only too racy for Wilde’s time, but still too much for movie audiences in 1952!

Video ***

This is a pleasant rendering of a classic color film on DVD by Criterion.  As with most Technicolor prints, the tones aren’t always natural, but heightened, bright and vibrant at every turn.  The settings are beautiful with attentive art direction and decoration, and this transfer preserves the beauty of Asquith’s camerawork at every turn.  Being half a century old, there are a few noticeable aging signs here and there…a spot, a blemish, a scratch and so on, but they are within the level of acceptability I would allow for a movie of its age.

Audio **

The mono track is adequate for the dialogue driven material…there is very little attraction outside the spoken word, so consider this one an even keel and nothing more.

Features *1/2

The disc includes the trailer and some rare production stills with text accompaniment.

Summary:

The Importance of Being Earnest is dated in many ways, but in others, just as funny as the day it was penned.  It’s an eternal testament to the cynically wry wit of the great Oscar Wilde, and makes for a laugh filled evening home with the DVD player.