“A Man of No Importance" tells the story of a Dublin bus
conductor named Alfie, whose hero is Oscar Wilde, whose hobby is staging
amateur theatricals and whose nickname for the handsome young driver of his bus
is "Bosie." Since Bosie was also Wilde's pet name for his lover, Lord
Alfred Douglas, one could be excused for concluding that Alfie was gay. But the
time is the early 1960s, when such clues were not easily seen in Ireland, and
Alfie's sister confidently waits for him to find "the right girl,"
even though he is close to 60 and not exactly looking for her.
is played by Albert Finney in another of those performances where Finney
inhabits his character as comfortably as an old slipper. Only Finney's ease and
confidence, indeed, make Alfie very believable, since the film's story is more
parable than reality.
is another of those tales where we are invited to cheer as the protagonist at
last understands and accepts his true nature, but while we are happy for Alfie there
is no sense that much was really at risk; his safe landing is made clear almost
from the opening frames.
is best about the film is its sentimental portrait of a Dublin filled with such
innocents and lovers of literature that the regular passengers on a bus could
look forward to the conductor's daily readings from literature - and would not
complain when he delays the bus one morning for a young lady who might be the
ideal lead for his production of Wilde's "Salome." The Irish more than
many other societies live in a close proximity to their literature. On my trips
there I have been surprised to find that Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Joyce and the
others are as familiar as football heroes or pop stars. I never met an Irishman
who couldn't quote a little Yeats, or more than a little. This helps lend some
credibility to the notion that a bus conductor could cast "Salome"
from among his passengers, something one would not attempt in Chicago on, say,
the Clark Street bus.
is a big city, but Alfie lives in a small world, and we meet its inhabitants.
There is Carney (Michael Gambon), the butcher, who often plays the lead; Lily
(Brenda Fricker), Alfie's sister, who doesn't like it when he prepares fancy
foreign dishes out of cookbooks; Adele (Tara Fitzgerald), the sweet-faced young
girl Alfie wants for Salome, and Robbie (Rufus Sewell), the bus driver, who
does not remotely suspect that the conductor has a crush on him.
and of course there's the benevolent Father Ignatius Kenny (Mick Lally), who is
happy to lend the church hall for the theatricals, although he may have a
slight suspicion that Oscar Wilde lacks the imprimatur.
movie finds a consistent vein of sly humor, indeed, in the inability of most of
its characters to catch on that Alfie is gay - or that Oscar Wilde was. The
story takes place at about the time of the Profumo scandal, when the society
doctor Stephen Ward was accused of providing call girls for a British cabinet
minister. Such is the confusion as this information arrives in Dublin that one
perfect line of dialogue confuses Ward's profession with his practices, and
refers to "homo-a-pathy" as a sin.
is obviously on a collision course with his true nature, and the way in which
this theme works itself out had best not be revealed here, except to say that
Quentin Crisp would have been proud of the floppy hat and flamboyant pink scarf
Alfie finds in his closet.
Devlin's screenplay has other good one-liners, as when Alfie defends Wilde:
"It's nothing to do with the Bible or nine weeks on your knees to St. Jude
- it's art." Or when he has a moment of self-knowledge late in the film,
after his sister says, "When I think of where your hands have been!"
and he replies in anguish: "They've never been anywhere! I've never been
close enough to anyone to so much as rub up against them, let alone put a hand
on them." And then adds with stubborn humor: "Me hands are innocent
of affection." All of this should work better than it does. I think the
problem is that the director, Suri Krishnamma, is too easy on the story and the
characters and, with the exception of one scene outside a bar, avoids the rough
edges. The movie operates at the level of a literate sitcom, in which the
dialogue is smart and the characters are original, but the outcome and most of
the stops along the way are preordained. I said it was a parable, but perhaps
it's more of a fable: a story told after the fact, rearranging the details into
the way they should have been.
there were real Alfies in Dublin in the early 1960s, and I am sure there were,
their lives were probably not anything near this cozy.