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Irish-born Oscar Wilde, who managed to die in Paris at only 46 years of age, formed part of that school of renegé novelists and poets from the Emerald Isle which included James Joyce. Indeed, these and other Irish writers were banned from publication in England and I seem to remember that James Joyce's earlier works were actually published in French before being allowed into print in English in the U.K.
Tut, tut, such piquant and avant-garde ideas would be too much for the genteel Victorian aristocracy living safely tucked up in hypocracy-ladened gallantry. Fortunately, for the colony-enriched classes, the `plebianism' of Charles Dickens was too long ago for their short memories, or never made it onto their bookshelves. Notwithstanding, from such gentlemanly proceedings such wit is born and which was soon to become one of the outstanding achievements of finest British humour: the ability to laugh at one's own foibles.
To this effect we must be, in great part, indebted to Mr. Wilde in general, and to `The Importance of Being Earnest' in particular. No other play of this genre has been so enacted and so many times converted into film and in so many languages as this classic of upper-crust comportment. Among the numerous versions available on film, this one by the irreplaceable Dame Edith Evans goes down as being the model from which any other readings must inevitably be taken. Dame Edith Evans IS Lady Bracknell; even Judy Dench is only playing the rôle in comparison.
The rising and setting of the curtain at the beginning and end of the film makes it totally clear that the play is to be seen on film but as if we the spectators were in the theatre. And so it should be: any free hand at getting away from such concept might well be unstomacheable, as well as irritating to admirers of the classics or simply people like myself who try not to be too pedantic. There are plenty of modern examples of William Shakespeare's plays on film which faithfully adhere to the original concepts and which do not lose anything in the telling. In this respect we can say that this version of the play is on target: what might seem exaggerated portrayals of the characters especially Dame Edith Evan's reading of Lady Bracknell indeed to my mind fulfills precisely what Oscar Wilde intended. Nobody else can ejaculate `F .o .u .n .d?' in five syllables as Dame Edith Evans does.
Fifty years on, this is still the version from which any other attempts will be judged. I hope I am not being earnest in excess .
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