It’s unlikely that two words have been uttered with more disdain, displeasure and bafflement in the history of cinema. Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans), the terrifying matriarch at the heart of what is arguably Oscar Wilde’s greatest play, exemplifies the Victorian values the playwright so enjoyed satirising and is by turns awe-inspiring and laughable. Evans reprised her stage role for Anthony Asquith’s 1952 Technicolor version of The Importance of Being Earnest; perhaps one of the most faithful stage to screen adaptations ever made of Wilde’s work. Asquith even nodded to the source in film’s opening: theatre audience members take their seats and, as the curtain rises, one viewer takes the screen audience ‘into’ the action through her eyeglasses.
One of the UK’s most successful directors after World War II , Asquith was a natural fit for the role. Much of his output derived from London’s West End, where Wilde’s play had been a sell-out hit when it was released on Valentine’s Day in 1895. Unusually, its success was confirmed before it fell into notoriety – that happened when the play was suspended 83 performances in, following Wilde’s prosecution for gross indecency after his libel suit against the Marques of Queensberry led to revelations of his homosexual relations. Ironically, Wilde’s downfall was initiated by Herbert Asquith (the then Home Secretary, later the Prime Minister) – but it was his son Anthony (himself a rumoured closet homosexual) who would make the first film version of the play.
Although broadly viewed as a comment of marriage, manners, class conventions and morality, it can also be interpreted as a comment on Wilde’s homosexuality. Ernest Worthing and and the spectacularly-named Algernon Moncrieff, the two lead male characters (played by Michael Redgrave and Michael Denison respectively), lead double lives and the entire play is based on mixed identity and invented relations. Wilde was indeed married and had two children and (in the early days at least) took care to conceal the ‘seedy’ aspects of his personality from his family.
The premise is borderline-ridiculous but is saved by Wilde’s sparkling dialogue, and the all-too believable characters who, to quote the playwright, ‘live in an age of surfaces’ and never change, ‘except in their affections’. Indeed it’s testament to Wilde’s skill that the three-act play, which offers little in the way of drama and action, still feels – and indeed remains – relevant today. The film sticks to the source perhaps a little too closely, but that’s a tough criticism when the original would have been hard to improve upon. One of the main criticisms of the day was that it feels too staged – that’s not an unfair comment, but in today’s TV-saturated, Hollywood-blockbuster age, the confined and limited spaces feel almost like a novelty – a theatrical event without the need to go to the theatre. Whilst it’s true that Asquith played it safe and could have opted for a more creative adaptation, The Importance of Being Earnest is a lightweight and whimsical watch, an enjoyable whole that’s a great deal more than the sum of its parts.
There’s a particular richness in the colour palette that also recalls the luxury of theatre-going. Asquith made just five films in Technicolor, and Earnest was his first. The film blends colours and tones into a rich and plush tapestry that visually conveys wealth and aristocracy. Traditional gentleman’s attire (tweed, plaid and houndstooth) is presented against a riotous backdrop of William Morris-inspired wallpaper, and floral motif rugs, tablecloths and soft furnishings. The interior sets are over furnished, but the production design (overseen by Carmen Dillon who had worked as an art director on numerous Asquith films) encapsulates Edwardian living whilst also mocking it – an aesthetic, surely directly inspired by Wilde’s original script.
The stand-out character though is Lady Bracknell, who sails into Moncrieff’s apartment clad in a regal purple satin gown, detailed with bows at the shoulders and finished with enormous, exaggerated puff-sleeves embroidered with sprig flowers – all deeply inappropriate for a dowager and reflecting – as the audience is soon to learn – her domineering, narrow-minded and snobbish traits. Aside: take a moment to appreciate the wonderful absurdity of her hats, which are bedecked with everything from silk corsages to peacock feathers and realistic-looking ‘diving’ birds. Although Evans would spent musch of her life trying to avoid being typecast into Bracknell-ish roles, she appears to be extremely comfortable in them; after all, it takes a certain kind of aplomb to carry off a hat like that.
Although Lady Bracknell is certainly the most quotable, Asquith took care to give each character ‘space’, and the droll, layered dialogue is well-paced and even. The characters’ individual intonations are reflective of their personalities (Bracknell elongates her vowels, Denison’s tone is more conversational), but they all merge harmoniously and the sub-characters – including Margaret Rutherford – are given a chance to shine.
Asquith’s film version is probably not as highly-regarded as it should be. It’s not a film that changed the course of movie history (indeed, it’s unlikely Asquith intended that it would) but it’s a sparkling adaptation of a play that, although self-consciuos and knowingly witty, will never go out of fashion. The stagey-ness does date the production, but it’s a faithful homage, well characterised and well produced. Although Wilde might have disliked ‘novels that end happily. They depress me so much’, the (seemingly) happy ending is the cherry on this trifle.
This post is my contribution to the Stage To Screen blogathon, hosted by The Rosebud Cinema and Rachel’s Theatre Reviews. I was keen to cover a Wilde adaptation; although he’s one of my favourite playwrights I’d previously never watched a filmed adaptation of his work. There are loads of great entries in this blogathon: check them out here.