THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
(directed by Anthony Asquith, 1952)
***** (out of 5)
> I saw a recent version of this that left me with no discernible impressions whatsoever. I barely remember it. (Let me pause to check IMDB…) Ah- it was a 2002 film starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkenson and Edward Fox. Helluva cast. Perhaps that’s why I gave it 3 stars. I seem to remember it felt like a reenactment- a great script with great actors that somehow didn’t catch fire.
. Glad I gave its 1952 predecessor a whirl, because this one did not feel like outsiders mimicking a museum piece “classic”. Under the eye of director Anthony Asquith, this cast took the wealth of riches in Oscar Wilde’s witty words and ran with them. Michael Redgrave and Michael Denison play two upper-class, turn-of-the-century bachelors, who both use invented personalities to artfully avoid social obligations they found boring or distasteful. Problems arise in courting two similarly stationed coquettes they fall madly in love with. There is much silliness about the romantic notion both young ladies far too conveniently share, that their imagined Prince Charming should be named “Earnest”, as the moniker indicate a trustworthy suitor. It’s a central conceit that the 2002 version just couldn’t pull off. Here, one gets the social satire behind it, the sharp jabs at convention and propriety, class privilege and entitlement that gives rise to such silliness.
. Dorothy Tutin and Joan Greenwood are the two coy ingénues, and Ms. Greenwood in particular just kills. I fell in love with her as a young boy when I saw MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and heard her smoky, seductive purr. (She also graced such classics as THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT and KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS.) Greenwood and Redgrave really wrung the humor out of the excessive formalities and exact manners of the hoity-toity upper crust of the era. I was tempted to just start writing down the great quotes that cram this great film full of wry humor. At one point, the divine Ms. Greenwood’s character tries to reassure her suitor by telling him: “I am constant in all things… except affection.”, and he does not bat an eyelash. All the cast are real professionals, including Edith Evans, Margaret Rutherford, and Miles Malleson- a character actor of his time who also happened to be a noted scholar. (I know him as the man who wrote the sparkling English language translation of Moliere’s “The Miser” I was in at school.)
> This clever classic elicits smiles, smirks, guffaws and explosions of laughter. See it if you enjoy these activities.
(Interesting note: Wikipedia posits that “Earnest” was a code name that identified you as gay in this time where this identity could land you in prison- as it did for poor Oscar Wilde, the brilliant but ill advised writer of these witty lines.)
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