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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