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AN IDEAL HUSBAND(director/writer: Oliver Parker; screenwriter: based on the play by Oscar Wilde; cinematographer: David Johnson; editor: Guy Bensley; cast: Rupert Everett (Lord Arthur Goring), Julianne Moore (Mrs. Laura Cheveley), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Chiltern), Cate Blanchett (Lady Gertrude Chiltern), Minnie Driver (Mabel Chiltern), John Wood (Earl of Caversham), Lindsay Duncan (Lady Markby), Peter Vaughan (Phipps), Michael Culkin (Oscar Wilde); Runtime: 97; Miramax; 1999-UK)

“I felt like I was being one-lined to a loving deathin this elegant Oscar Wilde comedy/drama costume play turned movie…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

I felt like I was being one-lined to a loving death in this elegant Oscar Wilde comedy/drama costume play turned movie and I must confess, I enjoyed every bit of the intelligence and the wit and the frivolity of it. This tremendous ensemble cast fired away with a continuous volley of epigrams. It is a modern play, even though it is one that was written in the last century for an audience that was more or less reflective of the characters portrayed on stage. Oscar Wilde, after mocking the English nobility who attended the play, would leave them with a thinly disguised compliment by telling them no one can be ideal.

The film was put to screen by the manipulative wizardry of Miramax (Shakespeare in Love, The Wings of the Dove), who know from the success of some of their recent films quite well how to popularize an already popular literary work by broadening its emotional appeal. They gave the audience what they wanted, a film that has a romantic heart and is not just hilariously flippant, and they should be commended for improving an imperfect but successful play. It rarely happens when a commercial venture turns out to critically improve a work of so-called “art,” so when it does happen it should be shouted from the highest mountain peaks.

We will meet all the main players even before the film grandly opens at the party of the ideal husband, Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), and his loving Victorian wife, the beautiful, suffragette minded Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Cate Blanchett). Then we tune into the real hero of the movie, the one whom I found it easiest to relate to, the slothful and cynical true voice of Oscar Wilde for the film, the rakish Lord Goring (Rupert Everett). Goring tells his loyal servant Phipps (Peter Vaughan): “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” And while he is being delivered his morning paper, a naked woman is in his bed. He will then read out loud an item in the paper about the upcoming party, followed by the title shown on screen: “1895–The London Season, where people are looking for husbands…or hiding from them.” This now takes us seamlessly into the park where the shrewd Mrs. Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore) is in a carriage with the haughty Lady Markby (Lindsay Duncan) as they come upon Gertrude, and we immediately see that there is some friction between Laura and Gertrude and that Lady Markby feels proud that she can arrange for her visiting friend from Vienna to be invited to the party she so badly wanted to attend.

At the party the idyllic love bubble of the Chilterns is burst by the treacherous Mrs. Cheveley (the former lover of Lord Goring), who meets with the righteously honest politician on the rise, Sir Robert, in order to blackmail him into supporting an Argentinean canal scheme she has invested a great deal of her money in. Sir Robert has already said in Parliament that he regards that scheme as a “swindle.” She threatens to reveal a letter he wrote her 18 years ago that gave inside info on the Suez Canal to an Austrian baron before the government announced its intentions. Sir Robert, if he doesn’t change his opinion, risks losing his wife if the letter is given to the press and risks losing his credibility with the public if he supports the canal. His best friend, Lord Goring, acts as the liaison trying to prevent the Chilterns from breaking up. He is also having an innocently romantic relationship with Sir Robert’s sister, Lady Mabel (Minnie Driver).

Everything is thoroughly enjoyable and agreeable about this delightful work, exhibiting subtle wit and brilliant dialogue. Rupert Everett stands out as a sheer delight in a cast that is almost perfect (Julianne Moore could have been a tad more sinister). Everett’s character says of himself: “I love talking about nothing, it’s the only thing I know anything about.” Minnie Driver is simply bubbling over with charm and wit to match his. Their flirtations are like a duel, with amusing lunges and enough double-entendres to get through any intellectual armor worn. It is a film laced with political blackmail, an incriminating letter, a mix-up in identities, questions about friendship and loyalty, money as a means to an end, sex as a weapon for marriage, the machinations of politics scorned at, a potential tabloid scandal in the horizon, and sanctimonious characters fighting to avoid being toppled. Even the minor players were perfectly cast — with my favorite being John Wood as Earl of Caversham, Lord Goring’s stuffy father, who is always lecturing him and trying to get him married.

There are so many witty phrases to revel in, but my favorite one is when Lord Goring says: “Morality is only for those you don’t like.” Writer/director Oliver Parker (Othello) has created a lighthearted film. It’s for those who love the spoken word as if it were a treasure and who find the intrigues of high society to be invigorating.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”