The Weird Thing the British Have About Names
Some years past, when I was reading [i]Emma[/i] for the first time, I discovered that Mr. Knightley never gets a first name. Strange but true. Even at the end, where Emma is rapturously declaring the joy of their union, what she says is, "Now, I need no longer call you Mr. Knightley." So far, so good, right? Only she follows it with, "Now, I may call you [i]my[/i] Mr. Knightley." Which is simply ridiculous. Similarly, toward the end of this play/movie, one of the characters is asked in a sense of great urgency what his father's first name was--and he didn't know. The excuse he gives for this is that he was so young when his father died, but I just don't believe it. Now, it's at least in part because he's a ridiculously frivolous Oscar Wilde character, which is almost an excuse for anything. However, it's silly nonetheless. It's silly that the late father's sister-in-law doesn't remember his first name. And all of this is leaving aside the perverse fixation our female leads have with the name Ernest in the first place. (One rather wonders how they would feel about those Jim Varney movies!) It is also a blessing, I feel, that no one is named Algernon anymore.
Jack Worthing (Michael Redgrave) is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax (Joan Greenwood). Her mother, Lady Augusta Bracknell (Edith Evans) naturally interrogates him before giving her consent to the wedding. Thus it is discovered that Jack was adopted. This is consequent to having been found in a handbag in the lost luggage compartment at Victoria Station--though on the fashionable Brighton Line, if that's any consolation. Lady Augusta categorically refuses to give her permission. Also, Jack has invented a profligate brother called Ernest, and it is he whom Gwendolen has fallen in love. It's the name, you see. His best friend and Gwendolen's cousin, Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Denison), has also invented a person. He has a friend called Bunbury, a sick man who lives out in the country and whom Algernon visits whenever he wants to get out of something. As part of the discovery of one another's imaginary friends, Algernon ends up visiting Jack's country estate, where he finds Jack's lovely ward, Cecily Cardew (Dorothy Tutin), who has imagined herself in love with Ernest. Algernon plays the role, and he and Cecily become engaged.
And so forth. It is, per Wilde, really terribly complicated. Of course, there is the fact that neither woman believes she can love any man not called Ernest. There is the fact that both men are pretending to be called Ernest--the same man called Ernest at that. Algernon shows up as Ernest the same day that Jack decides to kill him off. There is grim, glowering Lady Augusta looking over the whole thing. Everyone, of course, is foolish; this is Oscar Wilde, after all. They spout witticisms--Lady Augusta's famous declaration, for example, that to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose both looks like carelessness. However, as is usual for Wilde, they almost seem to be talking to hear themselves talk. Even his best-drawn characters do rather seem to be vehicles for the cleverest things Wilde can think of to have them say.
Indeed, this film is curiously tied to Wilde's life. The play, of course, was his last high point before his trial, imprisonment, banishment, and death. (I maintain, incidentally, that Wilde pretty much served two years' hard labour for being an idiot. If your lover's father goes around accusing you of sleeping with his son and other men, don't sue him for slander. When he is acquitted, as he must inevitably be, you are then open for prosecution as a homosexual. At least by the laws of the day.) His lover's father, the Marquess of Queensbury (yes, that Marquess of Queensbury), intended to see the play at its premiere with the express purpose of throwing things at Oscar Wilde when he came out to take his bow. Wilde found out--I doubt Lord Alfred Douglas was the one to tell him!--and the Marquess was kept from the theatre. It may well have been this incident which led things to where they went, not least because the controversy surrounding the situation led to the play's not lasting as many performances as its popularity would otherwise indicate. There is also the curious fact that this film's director, Anthony Asquith, was the son of then-Home Secretary H. H. Asquith, the man in the end responsible for the bringing of charges. One rather wonders about the family history leading to that!
On the whole, I am of two minds about the film itself. The play, of course, is delightful. (I'm not sure the production with Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane as I think Cecily from [i]Spider-Man 2[/i] could even have been all that bad, despite her obvious lack of presence in the role.) On the other hand, for one, while it's not colorized, it looks colorized. The film is rather washed out, and the clothes, at least on the women, are the most improbable assortment of colours. I'm aware they often were, but they almost seem to have been dressed by the colourblind--or by those who are only used to dressing people for B&W films, where the colours are not chosen for how they look to the people filming it. I'm not enormously fond of the casting, though it could assuredly have been worse. I think the filmmakers have also forgotten that it's easier to disguise too old on the stage than on the screen.