Friday 27 July 2007

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) Anthony Asquith

For purposes of complying with the moral code of late Victorian England, Jack Worthing leads a double life. In the country he is exactly that: Jack Worthing, a respectable gentleman who respectably takes care of his ward, young Cecily Cardew. In the city he is Jack's younger brother Earnest, something a little less than a gentleman. As Earnest he has a witty cad of a friend called Algernon and is head over heels in love with his cousin, Gwendolyn Fairfax, hardly surprising as she's played here by Joan Greenwood whose mere voice sends shivers down any red blooded spine and whose looks don't do much less.

There are problems, of course. Problem one is that Gwendolyn's mother, Lady Bracknell, isn't happy about this in the slightest, as he is an orphan and thus has no breeding whatsoever. In fact he was found a handbag in the cloakroom of Victoria station. Problem two is that Algernon finds his way to Jack's country estate to pose as Earnest and pursue Cecily.

This leads to the naturally untenable comedy of errors you can imagine, with two young ladies in love with young men named Earnest, neither of which are really called Earnest, and each of which are tied in responsibility to their counterpart's beloved. Given that the script comes from the play by Oscar Wilde, it is freely populated by the witticisms you'd expect and thus blissfully hilarious in exactly the opposite way to Merry Wives of Reno. I've read the play and realise that it's nigh on impossible to catch all the humour here in one viewing of the film version. It's one of the most skilful exercises of wit ever put onto paper and it translates pretty well.

The play can't fail to make any film version a success, but the cast is critical to how much of a success it will be. I've seen it on stage with a lesser cast and still loved it, and here the entire cast is stunning. Jack/Earnest is Michael Redgrave and his friend Algernon Moncrieff is Michael Denison, relishing his caddish role and giving an amazing interpretation of what Hugh Grant would have been had he been around in 1952 and without possession of a single expletive. Their respective young ladies are Joan Greenwood as Gwendolyn and Dorothy Tutin as Cecily, and both are superb, especially when fighting each other in the most genteel manner imaginable.

These four actors do an admirable job, especially given that they are forced to compete for screen attention with two of the greatest elderly scene stealers film has ever known.
Miss Prism, Cecily's tutor, is played by Margaret Rutherford, in fine form but a little more restrained than usual. However this time around she's trumped by the relation from Hell, Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn's mother. She's played by the grandest dame of the English stage, Edith Evans, knighted in 1946 for her contributions to the theatre and only just finding her way back to film. After three films between 1915 and 1916, she didn't return to the medium until 1949. Apparently her greatest days were behind her and her three Oscar nominations were yet to come, but she's still powerful here indeed as the epitome of upper class dismissiveness.

Incidentally there's a strange Oscar Wilde connection to this film via the recent biopic Wilde, which includes among the cast Vanessa Redgrave, daughter of Michael Redgrave, and Jason Morell, son of Joan Greenwood. Another strange connection is that director Anthony Asquith is the son of politician H H Asquith, who as Home Secretary, ordered the arrest of Oscar Wilde for indecent behaviour. Perhaps it was Asquith's son's own homosexuality that drew him to the material.

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