Film Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

At a dinner with friends the other evening the conversation meandered onto the diversity of the British accent and its plethora of dialects from various geographical points and social classes. Numerous attempts were made around the table to vocally replicate a variety of the nation’s populace, which for a while had the room in stitches. Overall, it seemed easier for those of us without an inherent talent to reproduce Ricky from Eastenders rather than Elyot from Private Lives. Which got me thinking because I’ve always quite liked “plummy”. It brought to mind the actress Joan Greenwood with her wonderfully precise elocution, which in turn led me to the film for which she is probably best known – The Importance of Being Earnest.

The play was written during the summer of 1894 and premiered the following year on 14 February at St James’s Theatre, London. The Importance of Being Earnest marked the pinnacle of Oscar Wilde’s career and remains undoubtedly his most popular play. However, it would also be his last.  A little over three months later, he would be in prison. But that’s another story.

This 1952 film was adapted and directed by Anthony Asquith, a stalwart of British cinema who gave us many notable movies such as Pygmalion (1938), The Winslow Boy (1948), Carrington V.C. (1955) and The V.I.P.s (1963) during his 40 year career.

Having been a student of drama many moons ago, I have a pretty good knowledge of this wittiest of farces and one thing I love about this film is its faithfulness to Wilde’s play. A couple of acts are broken into shorter scenes with different locations but generally what you hear is what you’d read. Indeed Asquith sets out to give us as near a theatrical experience as he can by opening the film in a theatre and introducing the action from a theatre audience’s perspective, opening curtain and all. With camera movement kept to a minimum, you could be forgiven for thinking it actually was a filmed theatrical performance you were watching which of course has a tendency to bring the acting into sharper focus. However, there’s no worry here. This cast does not disappoint. Michael Redgrave and Michael Denison are ideal (albeit perhaps just a tad too old) as the two young men-about-town who both pretend to be a man named Ernest in order to get the girl of their dreams. Joan Greenwood and Dorothy Tutin are equally up to the challenge of portraying young Victorian girls who men dream about (Greenwood’s elocution is just sublime). Margaret Rutherford (later of Miss Marple fame) is perfect as governess Miss Prism as is Miles Malleson who plays Dr. Chasuble, the rector. The three chaps who play the butlers are worth a mention too because they do great things with their small roles. But the show-stealer is without doubt Edith Evans who pretty much is and always will be Lady Bracknell. Her performance is so indelibly stamped on the character that it has since provided a challenge for anyone else taking on the role. The sets are small but lavishly detailed and wonderfully colourful and the period costumes are exquisite.

Dorothy Tutin received a BAFTA nomination as Most Promising Newcomer for her role and Asquith was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. If you’re familiar with the story and have perhaps seen the 2002 film version with Rupert Everett and Colin Firth playing the two gents, give this one a look too. It’s a simple unfussy production that absolutely highlights the extraordinary wit and sublime writing of Oscar Wilde as well as the extremely high standard of those in the cast. If you’re not familiar with the story at all, then lucky you. Today you’ve discovered a true gem.