The Oscar Wilde classic about two marriageable bachelors not named Earnest; the women they’d wed if only they were; and the gorgon of an Aunt who speaks in topsy-turvy epigrams has stayed remarkably fresh in spite of constant productions. These days, the Aunt (Lady Bracknell) is often played as a ‘drag’ specialty for aging troupers like William Hutt, David Suchet or Brian Bedford. That said, one of the great pleasures in this rather stately version directed by Anthony Asquith (it sometimes feels as glued into place as the production’s William Morris-style wallpaper) comes from preserving Edith Evans’ near-definitive Lady Bracknell. Avoiding any ruinous temptation to be terribly, terribly arch, she’s always terribly, terribly true; real artificial, so to speak. A trick largely pulled off by all the ladies (Joan Greenwood, resonating with bowling alley acoustics; Margaret Rutherford, bosoms heaving); less so by the men (Michael Redgrave, a bit old for such shenanigans; Michael Denison, a little out of his league). Still, yards ahead of Oliver Parker’s 2002 misreading. (The Criterion DVD, also from 2002, could do with an upgrade.)
READ ALL ABOUT IT: More accurately, HEAR All About It since Edith Evans can be heard to even better advantage in an audio version, made around the same time as the film, with John Gielgud, Roland Culver & Pamela Brown among the cast. The play works exceptionally well as sound drama (just fill your head with visions of Wm. Morris wallpaper). Here’s a link to the first act, with the second & third offered on the same page: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8w8lf6LmDWc
DOUBLE-BILL: A superior adaptation of a superior Wilde play can be found in Alexander Korda’s miraculously cast AN IDEAL HUSBAND/’47. Or can if you’re in England; the DVD isn’t available Stateside. (That same Oliver Parker also has a lousy 1999 film version of it.) Instead, go for the best of all Wilde film adaptations, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1925 silent take on LADY WINDEMERE’S FAN, with witty images in place of witty dialogue. An astonishment.