The Importance of Being Earnest

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #158: Anthony Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

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I have a queer affection for this film. It isn’t my type of film at all, in fact. But it is so deliberately smarmy and the dialogue so witty and refreshing that I quickly forget that I’d want to beat the shit out of these people in real life. Oscar Wilde’s play loses nothing in the hands of Anthony Asquith and his stellar roundup of actors; Michael Redgrave in particular gives a stellar performance. I’m trying to step a bit away from academic analysis in these reviews, but I will say that the film is somewhat of a meta-dialogue since it contains actors playing actors playing characters who are actors. This affectation, and the numerous clever plot twists keep the pace fresh in what are interminably long scenes for film.

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In fact, the plot devices, twists and development are so well integrated into the characters’ behavior and Asquith’s portrayal of such, that the end of the film becomes even more startling for its nearly frivolous climax and its appropriately impudent pun. It only comes as an afterthought that such a work was probably a trenchant satire at the time it was written, following in the best traditions of popular English literature. There is much that would have been humorous for its shock value over 100 years ago that has a different sort of humorous applicability in contemporary times. So while the film has a dated feel in terms of content and cinematic style, its fundamentals are strong enough for it to rightly deserve the title of classic.

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Criterion Essay by Charles Dennis.
• The Oscar Wilde play at Project Gutenberg.
YouTube clips from the film. They’re funny.