Suri Krishnamma’s A Man of No Importance (1994) is one of those marvelous little movies that almost no one knows. It came out on VHS and laserdisc and was played frequently on the Sundance Channel back in the 1990s (with the unenticing plot synopsis, “A Dublin bus conductor tries to stage Oscar Wilde’s Salome in 1963”) and then promptly vanished. Considering the cast, that’s even more curious. Perhaps the problem lies with that old plot synopsis. Yes, it is about a Dublin bus conductor, Alfie Byrne (Albert Finney), trying to stage Wilde’s Salome in a church parish hall. But it’s considerably more than that, as well. The synopsis doesn’t bother to mention that Alfie feels a special kinship with Wilde because he’s a closeted gay man—something that not even his sister (Brenda Fricker) or his supposed good friend Ivor Carney (Michael Gambon) know. Moreover, he’s a middle-aged closeted gay man who has never had any kind of relationship and is hopelessly in love with young bus driver Robbie Fay (Rufus Sewell). He’s also an innocent and innately good man, who takes a young woman, Adele (Tara Fitzgerald), under his wing as his Salome.
Even adding that information only gives a hint of what a fine little film A Man of No Importance is—and says nothing about the tremendous good humor and emotional resonance of the film or the complexity of its characters. Is Robbie quite as oblivious as he seems? (He certainly evidences jealousy over Alfie’s supposed relationship with Adele.) There are so many splendid moments to be found here, as when Alfie sees Robbie go off with a girl and drops his tea cup, apologizing to a kind waitress who tells him, “It was only an old cup got broke. Be worse if it was your heart.” And there’s his sister’s reaction when his secret comes out—“When I think of where your hands have been …” “That’s the point!” Alfie cries. “They’ve never been anywhere! I’ve never been close enough to anybody to rub up against them, let alone lay me hands on ‘em!” There are few more heartbreaking moments in film. Yet the movie is often very funny, too. The more you know Oscar Wilde, the more you’ll get out of the film (Alfie argues his love for Robbie using the speech Wilde made at his trial). But knowing Wilde or not knowing Wilde, getting the little homage to Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers or not, won’t hamper your enjoyment of this truly wonderful film that you ought to know, and very likely don’t.