The plot is roughly as follows. Jack Worthing, a wealthy young man with a great estate in the country has invented an alter ego, Ernest. Jack is careful with money, and thoughtful, but Ernest is a spendthrift and a layabout. He uses Ernest and his troubles as an excuse to go to London from time to time and have some fun. In London, he uses the name Ernest. His friend, Algernon Moncrieff, has a similar device to get out of social engagements he wants to avoid. Moncrieff has invented an invalid friend, Bunberry, whom he always has to go visit whenever he wants to get out of any social engagement he finds dreary. Jack is in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax, but his lack of social connections (he was a foundling left at a railway station) and the problem of his name (Gwendolyn knows him as “Ernest” and loves him under that name) may keep him from marrying her. While Jack tries to win Gwendolyn, Algernon uses Bunberry as an excuse so he can go to the country and see Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew. Algernon poses as “Ernest” to court Cecily, who also happens to love the name, and can only see herself marrying someone by that name. Various confusions arise when Gwendolyn comes down to see Ernest in the country and happens to meet Cecily, and then Jack returns home…
The play is a comedy of errors, with mistaken identity making up a large part of the humor. But a lot of humor comes from the various characters use of language to poke fun at the various, very, very “British” conventions. For instance, when Jack as Ernest tells Lady Bracknell that he has lost both his parents, she retorts famously. “To lose one parent may be seen as a misfortune, but to lose both looks like carelessness.” As a clever Irishman living among the British upper class, Wilde knew a lot about the use of language in society, and just what it meant to be an outsider.
Both film versions available from the library, that of Asquith (1952) and of Oliver (2002), are well made. Asquith chooses to emphasize the theatricality of the play and with its clever use of language and insistence on language as opposed to action, this is a play that works better as a play than as a film. And so Asquith’s production, done in technicolor, which adds a brilliance to the scenes, but which has an artificial feel to it, begins with a playbill, and two people in a theater box, looking down at a proscenium arch stage, with the curtain about to go up. The actors, as well, deliver their lines with a precision and emphasis one finds in stage productions of classic drama. All of this adds to the feeling that we are watching a play. Of course, though Asquith chooses to focus on the production’s theatricality, he does have a very mobile camera, which lets us know that we are not sitting in a playhouse looking at a stage production. It’s as if we are on stage, walking through the play as it takes place.
Parker’s version cannot hide the theatrical origin of the work (the language is wittier than one finds in everyday life, and there is the theatrical absurdity of much of the conversation), but aims at making the film seem more natural. The actors do not deliver their lines with the heightened precision of the stage we see in Asquith’s version. Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell and Frances O’Connor as Gwendolyn come the closest to playing their parts as if on stage.
Parker’s version is also tightly edited, so that the film, which is not an action drama, still moves along at quite a clip. This is most evident in the final scene, where the truth comes out about Jack Worthing’s origins and how he came to be left in a carpet bag at the train station – there seems a mad dash to the finish of the story.
If you want to know what it must have been like to see the play in 1890s London, look to the Asquith treatment; if you want a quicker paced “Earnest,” check out Parker’s version. In either case, you’ll like what you see, and laugh.
The Importance of Being Eearnest (1952), dir. Anthony Asquith, w/ Michael Redgrave (Ernest Worthing/Jack), Michael Denison (Algernon [Algy] Moncrieff), Edith Evans (Lady Bracknell), Joan Greenwood (Gwendolyn Fairfax), Dorothy Tutin (Cecily Cardew), Margaret Rutherford (Miss Prism), Miles Malleson (Canon Chasuble)
The Importance of Being Eearnest (2002), dir. Oliver Parker, w/ Colin Firth (Ernest Worthing/Jack), Rupert Everett (Algernon [Algy] Moncrieff), Judi Dench (Lady Bracknell), Frances O’ Connor (Gwendolyn Fairfax), Reese Witherspoon (Cecily Cardew), Anna Massey (Miss Prism), Tom Wilkinson (Canon Chasuble)