Friday, April 11, 2014

The Importance of Being Earnest

Doreen did not appear with my lunch tray as she was supposed to, despite my ringing my bell any number of times. It was really most inconsiderate of her. In the midst of my calling, the RV returned, this time running over most of the front herbaceous border and Herbert descended looking grim. I called to him from my window to ask Doreen to please bring up my lunch, but I don't think he heard me. He disappeared into the house immediately.

I called a few more times, but he and Doreen must have had something to celebrate as I heard them popping champagne corks out on the back terrace and then a splash - I suppose they decided to go swimming. I'll have to remember to have the pool disinfected as soon as my leg has healed. A few moments later, the RV pulled out again and all was quiet. I yelled some more and rang, but downstairs, all was quiet as a tomb.

As I had ordered cucumber sandwiches for lunch, I decided that I could at least enjoy them in cinematic form so I found the new DVD release of Oscar Wilde's immortal comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. Cucumber sandwiches are featured in an early scene. Wilde's original play, one of the most scintillating collections of bon mots ever penned in the English language, satirizes the upper crust of late Victorian British society and was the epitome of his epigrammatic wit. Unfortunately, his infamous libel trials began soon after its 1895 opening and he rapidly plummeted from the pinnacle of society to pariah, never producing another major theatrical work.

In terms of plot, The Importance of Being Earnest is a farrago of nonsense. Jack Worthing (Sir Michael Redgrave), is a proper gentleman, despite having begun life as found property in the cloakroom of Victoria station (The Brighton Line). He is in love with the beauteous Gwendolyn Fairfax (Joan Greenwood) whose gorgon of a mother, Lady Bracknell (Dame Edith Evans), disapproves of her daughter forming an alliance with, as she puts it, a parcel. An additional complication is piled on when we learn that Gwendolyn is dead set on marrying a man of the name of Earnest, believing this to be Jack's true name, rather than the name of a fictitious brother he uses as an excuse to escape from his estates in the country to town. Gwendolyn's cousin, Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Denison), of good breeding, but no money, fails as intermediary. He finds out that Jack has a young ward, Cecily Cardew (Dorothy Tutin), of good fortune at his country house and heads off to the country impersonating the non-existent Earnest. Further complications are piled on by Cecily's addled governess, Miss Prism (Dame Margaret Rutherford) and her suitor, the local clergyman Chausable (Miles Malleson). Soon all the major characters collide at Jack's country house where secrets are revealed, identities established and, like all good comedies, the correct couples are united with each other.

Director Anthony Asquith, one of the leading lights of post-war British film making wisely chose to pay full honor to the piece's stage origins. The film starts with a very proper Victorian couple in a theater box watching our cast as if in a play and through the proscenium arch we go into their world. The story is opened out very little. Asquith and his design team stay out of the way and let the words speak for themselves. The colors are sensational in that Technicolor way. The costumes and sets capture the height of the Pre-Raphaelite/art nouveau style of the period and the editing and camera work is never intrusive.

The cast is absolutely brilliant. All were British stage veterans (although Joan Greenwood and Sir Michael Redgrave had also had extensive film experience.) All were at the top of their game in terms of making the most of Wilde's highly theatrical use of language. Dame Edith Evans practically owned the part of Lady Bracknell on stage, playing it many times. Her delivery of such classic lines as 'A handbag?' have set the standard which no other actress in the part has ever matched. It's a joy to watch the old pro at work, milking every syllable in an arch tone but never over the top and never out of character. It's a delicate balancing act but she pulls it off. The other cast, while not quite at her incredible level, play off each other with great zest, even Dorothy Tutin in her film debut. Sir Michael Redgrave's Jack, however, is the glue that holds the whole confection together. He gives a performance of delicate artificiality, perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film.

The new DVD release from the Criterion collection is an excellent transfer of a Technicolor print. There is occasional color fading around reel changes and the sound is a bit muddy, but, in general, this is as good a representation of the classic as you're going to get. Besides the film is the original theatrical trailer and extensive cast and crew biographies.

Butterfly hats. Victoria Station disparaging. Cucumber sandwich eating. Horrid German grammar lesson. Rigoletto singing. Handbag identification. Three volume novel references.

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