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.

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