“I pity any young woman who isn’t married to a man named Ernest.”
A wealthy bachelor (Michael Redgrave) going by the name of “Ernest” hopes to marry the daughter (Joan Greenwood) of arrogant Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans); meanwhile, Evans’ nephew (Michael Denison) — also posing as “Ernest” — falls in love with Redgrave’s beautiful 18-year-old ward (Dorothy Tutin). Troubles arise when Evans expresses concern over Redgrave’s dubious heritage, and both Greenwood and Tutin learn that their fiances are actually named something other than Ernest.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Class Relations
- Joan Greenwood Films
- Margaret Rutherford Films
- Michael Redgrave Films
- Mistaken or Hidden Identities
- Play Adaptation
- Romantic Comedy
Oscar Wilde’s final play — the initial production of which was infamously sabotaged by allegations of his homosexual “indiscretions” and his subsequent jailing — has been adapted for the big screen numerous times (including a 2002 version co-starring Reese Witherspoon), but this earlier adaptation by director Anthony Asquith is often cited as the most faithful and definitive version. Indeed, many critics complain that the film sticks too closely to its theatrical origins — a charge frequently leveled at Asquith, whose directorial style in general was more straightforward than stylistically creative. For my money, Wilde’s play is enjoyable enough to stand just fine on its own, and a more straightforward adaptation like this allows one simply to bask in its infinitely witty juices. Wilde truly was a genius at humorously skewering class relations, and his play was (thankfully) modified only slightly for the screen by Asquith, who refused to accept any credit for the work.
Although John Gielgud remains perhaps the most famous actor to perform as Jack/Ernest (he turned down an opportunity to star in this adaptation), Michael Redgrave is a fine — if perhaps slightly overage — replacement, and Michael Denison is perfectly cast as his roguish friend Algernon. Dorothy Tutin — who remained primarily a stage actress throughout her career — made her screen debut as Cecily, and is suitably youthful and naive in this critical role; meanwhile, Joan Greenwood purrs her way through a supporting performance as Redgrave’s betrothed, and Margaret Rutherford steals the few scenes she’s in as Tutin’s German tutor. The film’s most famous performance, however, is given by Dame Edith Evans, who played the role of Lady Bracknell for several decades on stage, and whose incredulous intonation here of the line, “A handbag?!” remains oft-cited.
Note: Watch for some delightfully florid hats worn by the various women in the cast; the Technicolor cinematography brings out their hues quite nicely.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Yes, as the “definitive” cinematic adaptation of Wilde’s classic play.