The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
Reviewed in February 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of the late Edith Evans's 124th birthday.
Director: Anthony Asquith. Cast: Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Dorothy Tutin, Margaret Rutherford, Miles Malleson, Richard Wattis, Walter Hudd, Aubrey Mather. Screenplay: Anthony Asquith (based on the play by Oscar Wilde).
Twitter Capsule: Limited points for technique, but Asquith's muffled creativity winds up serving Wilde's quite well

Photo © 1952 The J. Arthur Rank Organisation/Javelin Films/British Film-Makers
As Oscar Wilde might have said, some plays are so good that you try to avoid seeing them. The Importance of Being Earnest is a paragon of delicious wordplay, so crystal-clear as to be surprisingly hard to deliver. Many performers cannot help saying the lines or pausing afterward as though awaiting a laugh track. Others appear beset by the need to endow the characters with layers of psychology or backstory well beyond what is helpful to the piece. For their part, some readers and audiences Just Don't Get It. I have been one of them. I remember reading Earnest for the first time in college and professing typical young-reader objections along the lines of "Wilde has failed to make any of these people sound like anyone but Wilde," and "There are no stakes in this play besides the self-enclosed exchange of badinage." Fair enough, in the first case, as long as you strike the word "failed," since the playwright never implies that goal. Fair enough, in the second case, but whenever more self-serious modernists than Wilde subordinated narrative, form, or theme to a self-conscious meditation on language and its workings, this tended to augment their reputations rather than tarnishing them with fusty misgivings.

Still, popular cinema is not the most welcoming idiom for language experiments. I haven't seen Oliver Parker's 2002 adaptation of Earnest with Colin Firth and Rupert Everett as Jack and Algy, nor A Good Woman, the reworking of Lady Windermere's Fan with the odd impulse to cast Helen Hunt as a vixen and Scarlett Johansson as a prude. I have seen Parker's stab at An Ideal Husband, surrounding Everett with game performances by Cate Blanchett, Jeremy Northam, Julianne Moore, and Minnie Driver, marred mostly by the fact that they aren't the same kind of game performances. Everett, a born Wildean, knows how little he needs to do to capture the tone, louche yet dry. Blanchett opts for sincerity, Moore for stiff mannerism, and Driver for footlight parading. They're all fun, but the movie pulls away at itself, and there's nothing in the filmmaking to brace them all together. Even the hair and makeup teams seem to be working in different universes for each character. Though casting aspersions where 90 minutes of research would glean a real answer, I imagine that Parker's Earnest is padded with reaction shots of characters grinning, fuming, knitting their brows, or rolling their eyes at other characters, plus some budget-inflating and budget-flaunting establishing shots of London townhouses and rolling country fields. School me as needed if I am wrong. (Judi Dench, as unavoidably cast as Lady Bracknell in her day as Edith Evans was two generations earlier, may give me the chance to learn for myself when her birthday rolls around in December.)

Happily side-stepping such looming pitfalls, Anthony Asquith turns out to be a wonderfully suited director for Earnest. Whether his nimble choices result from real discernment or from fortuitous deficiencies in his image-making capacities is hard to say. They may not even matter. Earnest brings so much wit and style to the table that garnishing it with further layers of either may not serve its interests. The formal technique here might fairly be called pedestrian, even when its payoffs are handsom. By contrast, when Asquith concocts a slant or a flourish of his own, the nutritional value is dubious, as when he has Michael Redgrave's Jack spontaneously pirouette in his drawing room, while the shot dissolves to another image of Jack's torso in different dress. Close-ups and two-shots comprise an inordinate ratio of the film's images, and even when the camera sits further back, the compositions are always framed around the actors rather than inserting them into a visual configuration that gives them meaning, rather than the other way around.

All of these strike me as perfectly fair and in some cases inspired decisions. If The Importance of Being Earnest is no groundbreaker as cinema, it's a remarkably engaging read on the play, which I've never liked quite as much as I did while watching this film, and whose challenges have never seemed as great as they do here, even though the film refuses to treat itself as a "difficult" enterprise in any way. As in Parker's Ideal Husband, the five principal cast members each stake different claims on Wilde and assume very different personas, and yet the effect here is much less cacophonous. Michael Denison's Algernon does not have the consummate polish of Redgrave's Jack. He radiates a consistent, offhanded jocularity in most of his scenes, while Redgrave finds a series of inflections and moods that are more specific to particular beats in the script. Edith Evans is so axiomatically linked to the part of Lady Bracknell, that comic battleship, that her likeness still appears as the cover image on many reprints of Wilde's play. She indulges a hammy, heavily worked vocal delivery, but she's able to do this while restraining her physical performance and even her temperament within very constrained lines that offset her fluorescent recitations. Many a Lady Bracknell pops her top upon re-entering a drawing room and discovering that her niece Gwendolen Fairfax has accepted Jack's proposal of marriage. Evans, however, finds her seat with smooth, almost somnambulistic movements, neither agitated nor farcically suppressing of agitation. It takes more than this—it takes a handbag, as it happens—to throw her off her plummy, imperious equanimity.

Speaking of sleepwalkers, the great and too-little-filmed English actress Joan Greenwood brings deft pauses and very funny rhythms to her out-of-body take on Gwendolen. She uses the famous line "Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always think they mean ...something else," to express a half-knowing sauciness, not a dippy naïveté. The barely-addled tranquility she brings to a line like "Mama has a way of coming back suddenly into a room that I have often had to speak to her about" is funnier than any comic exasperation, because it's so much less expected. In short, if your favorite turn in Bullets over Broadway is Dianne Wiest's, your favorite here will be Evans's; if you incline toward Jennifer Tilly's breathy arrhythmia, you'll spring for Greenwood. Dorothy Tutin, newest to the screen among Earnest's principals but starting her own important career, is less distinctive but still very good as the sweet but fretful Cecily. She is confident enough to cede all of her exchanges with her prickly, preoccupied tutor Miss Prism to the veteran scene-stealer Margaret Rutherford, but she does not wash off the screen the way a lot of pretty young things do.

The strength of Asquith's direction here makes itself felt in the consistent cadences he manages across all five performances, even though their tones and colorations are very different. Nobody races through his or her lines, or backloads their punchlines at the expense of other, more subtly humorous locutions. Evans's flutiest vowels and her uncanny ability to stretch b's, f's, and p's as endlessly as a's and o's bear almost nothing in common with Greenwood's anaesthetized delivery or Denison's chummy conversation, and yet they all flow into a collective rhythm that thereby takes on a life of its own. Additionally, all five performers act as though their characters mean everything they say, which can be hard for a laugh-hunting ensemble in a Wilde play to do. As a result, Earnest actually works as social satire of an utterly unpretentious sort. Everyone in it feels like they hail from the same place, more or less. They fall into each other's paces and engage in each other's weird rituals in ways that feel genuine even when they are most baffled. Early on, Redgrave reads the line "What on earth do you mean" as though he really is trying to work out something Algernon has said, not just kowtowing to an audience that is enjoying but also struggling with all of Wilde's dazzling and coy circumlocutions. It's a welcome harbinger of a production that not only cares that we respond in the moment to whatever's being said, but that cares how the characters are responding. We are not coaxed to guffaw at a holistic edifice of Wit, a play that is good for you simply because it is known to be funny, but which we need not investigate for ourselves.

The other triumph of the film is its jewel-toned Technicolor. Earnest blends patterns so well that Nina Garcia would squeal: Jack's paisleys and aerogramme-inspired piping, Augusta Bracknell's old-lady florals, Algy's plaids and houndstooths, Gwendolen's suffocating clouds of airy fabric, and Cecily's pupil-ish outfits and wasp-waisted ensembles, fashioned from heavier, more domestic textiles. That's a lot of breadth and detail for one film to manage, and it says as much for Carmen Dillon's production design as for Beatrice Dawson's costumes that such clashing styles manage to cohabit the images so pleasingly, no matter how brightly and busily. Like their acting styles and character designs, the ivories, blacks, and gleaming jades in Redgrave's costumes, the lavenders, golds, and fussy brocades in Evans's, Denison's browns and olives, Cecily's blues and whites, and Gwendolen's peaches and pinks are almost comically unrelated and yet they, too, avoid the impression of pure garishness. At the very least, they bespeak a shared garishness that feels more purposeful than sloppy, even expressing a strange sort of elegance. Desmond Dickinson, better known for his sepulchral black-and-white photography of Olivier's Hamlet, which emphasized silhouettes and sooty textures over chromatic gradations, is an unexpected wizard with Earnest's explosion of hues. He doesn't just happen to be filming a play about overripe expressiveness and outlandish social ritual but feeds directly into those ideas. He avoids a simpler, more grandiloquent tackiness that would prompt justifiable laughs at the ingénues, the dissembling suitors, and their dowager empress but would run completely counter to the debonair appeal of Wilde's facetious poetry. That Earnest wrestles these hues and tones into something like a complementary color scheme even in a film that frames its actors so tightly is all the more impressive. Asquith and Dickinson make sure that many of the shots have depth even when their purview is narrow, so that middle-ground and background details can echo, absorb, or subdue the zaniness of the colors and patterns in the foreground.

Everyone and everything in this Importance of Being Earnest has the sheen and the swollen brightness of clownfish, or mangos. Lady Bracknell has some revealing words on that subject, as on so many others: "Ignorance is like an exotic fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone." The contagious ignorance and foolishness uniting town and country makes its own case, but Asquith, whatever his limitations as a stylist, has found the ideal vehicle for rewarding what he's good at and rendering the prospect of a more innovative, more frame-conscious, more montage-focused director almost undesirable. Earnest obviously benefits from apt counsel and careful coordination at all levels, but it has the bloom of something untouched, as though Asquith wants Wilde's play to appear to direct itself. He is unafraid of subtext, but nor is he ostentatious with it; the semi-secret hints at homosexuality that are the famous cargo of all the "Bunburying" exchanges are fully palpable in Denison's wicked grins and in Redgrave's flustered yet weirdly gratified discomfort when that subject arises. The couplings produced by the end, filial as well as romantic, have both sentimental appeal and satiric bite. We feel how ridiculous all of this is without standing snidely apart from the text, or from the period and its deliciously hypocritical mores.

To borrow another of Wilde's own metaphors, Asquith treats the play rather like Jack Worthing treats the handbag in which had both the luck and the misfortune to be found as an infant. This handbag he now safeguards under a belljar in his bedroom, loath to besmirch it and perhaps overly reverential toward it. The glad effect of such reverence, however, is that he is able to produce the handbag just as it was—absurdly, but also dazzlingly—when the right moment arrives. Asquith hasn't touched Earnest much, or has ably disguised his fingerprints where he has. He alters the text itself so little that he doesn't even take a Screenplay credit. But for an audience that takes pleasure in the all-too-rare art of faithful adaptations that vivify rather than embalming their sources, or that doubts whether Wilde can really thrive on screen no matter the governing aesthetic, Asquith's conservative handling is just what the confirmed and secret Bunburyist ordered. Grade: B+

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