1952, Anthony Asquith -- netflix
I should know better than to hold a film made in 1952, based on a play written in the 1890's, to modern standards, and yet, I find myself judging older movies against the experiences I have, the stories I've been exposed to, and, oh yes, the cliches I'm potently aware of. I don't always have difficulty judging things in context, but sometimes, even context can't overcome a fatal flaw in storytelling.
That said this mid-20th century production of the Oscar Wilde play is actually quite delightful. Wilde's breathlessly brisk dialogue remains sharp-tongued and captivating. The Michaels Redgrave and Denison handle Wilde's wordiness with aplomb, creating charming if not always convincing upper-class rascals who are best friends and stark nemesis at the same time. The set-up of the story finds Redgrave's Jack Worthing owning up Denison's Algernon Montcrieff that he has a dual life, acting as his own nonexistent brother name Earnest in the city and Jack in the country, but plans to kill off his alter ego in order to marry Algernon's cousin. Algernon decides to throw a monkey into Jack's wrench by visiting him in the country, as Earnest, and immediately falls in love with Jack's teenaged ward.
So both men find their true love, but under false pretenses. Oh what a pickle, especially when they're both found out. It's at this point that the farce comes to a head, and a step beyond, when through highly convoluted circumstances (and a dose of quasi-deus ex machina) Jack's mysterious origins as an orphan are revealed, and it turns out he's Algernon's brother, which would mean his true love is his cousin, which he doesn't seem phased by a bit, which I guess was acceptable back in the 19th century?. It's a fun tale that gets mired in too many levels of happenstance at its forced conclusion to really make it's mark. Obviously it lives on, and lives large, because of Wilde's great wordplay, but story-wise it's a lark then a groan-inducing let down. This telling is filled with great over-acting from the leads, and some delightfully hammy performances from the supporting players. The set design and costuming is vintagely busy, in effort to make up for the fact that there's only a half dozen sets in the entire picture. It's a winning piece with a losing finish, but hey, chalk that up to a man whose been dead for 112 years.