Michael Redgrave plays Jack Worthing the more timid of the two, when it comes to their little games they play to make it so they can do what they want with their social lives. Redgrave is just fine as Worthing who is a bit uneasy as he tries to maneuver through his game of names in order to woo Gwendolen (Joan Greenwood), the man who steals the show though is Michael Denison as Algernon who is Worthing's friend? who also likes to use a fake name to get out of situations. Algernon's attitude though is quite different from Wothing's. Algernon though seems far less uneasy about the problems that could arise from the names, and instead seems to just wish to enjoy himself with whatever comes.
Denison is brilliant in his method of playing Algernon who he portrays as a bit of the constant critic, who pretty much loves to pester Worthing for even the slightest thing. Denison finds the most entertaining tone to play his character which is he loves the way he condescends whenever it is possible. In his devilish smile there is always an unbridled glee he takes throughout the proceedings of the story. Denison finds just that perfect tone for his performance that always adds to the comedic value of every scene. Just as important is Denison somehow never is off putting even though Algernon is always pestering Worthing and really does not have too many problems with his falsifications.
It is hard to say how exactly Denison finds this tone precisely as he doesn't hold back in any way. He is absolutely biting as Algernon the entire film. It would be easy to fall off and just coming off as smug or overly pretentious, but Denison never has this problem for whatever reason. What probably makes this performance work so well is that there is not any coldness to the joy that he expresses as he makes his comments throughout. Of course this is not to say he comes off as really a warm fellow either but he treads the line just so incredibly well so he is the carper he should be, but one who allows us to enjoy his critiques right along with him.
Much of the strength of the film is the wordplay in the dialogue and Denison is the best of the cast when it comes to delivering these colorful lines. Denison handles everyone such a rhythm that really makes the words come to life, and the scenes play out quite wonderfully with his precise precision. Not a single line falls flat with Denison everyone of his lines are delightful because of how he works them in with the style of his character and of course his comedic timing is flawless. His line deliveries though are not even the best part of his film, and actually my favorite moments of his performance is when he is just in the background.
Denison even when he technically is not the focus of the scene does not allow himself to be left as just in the background. He has great moments that do take the scene in his favor even when it is not a scene that favors Algernon. The snide method of his character is always present and he has some hilarious moments as he reacts to Worthing's own actions. His little knowing smiles and eye turns are always funny and in fact always amplify the comedic value of any scene. Denison just is on no matter how slight the reaction may be it is always something that can be enjoyed.
An interesting thing is that even when Algernon gets involved by trying to woo his own woman Cecily (Dorthy Tutin), Denison still keeps Algernon steady in his style. Even when his plans go wrong with the woman even Denison still keeps Algernon as Algernon. I don't take it as Denison being lazy though instead he stays true to his character. Honestly the later scenes would not be nearly as easy to enjoy if Denison did not keep it up and stay true to Algernon nature which allows him to eat calmly even as both his and Worthing's future with the women is definitely in question.
Michael Denison's performance is one that finds one note to play his character and sticks with it. What makes it work though is that it is such a note of brilliance. Denison portrayal of Algernon never falls short and really makes the film. He livens up every scene with his performance whether or not he even has the best lines in a particular scene. The moment in this version of the play is apparently best remembered Dame Edith Evans's delivery of the line "A Handbag!", although I won't say anything negative about that, but for me the best moment has to be Denison's absolutely perfect reaction when he learns that Worthing is his brother. That fantastic moment though is just all that Denison does throughout the film, and I have to say I simply loved this portrayal of Algernon.