The Importance of Being Earnest

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


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.


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.


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

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