*** 1/2 Stars
(UK/USA 1999) Rated PG-13
Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore, Jeremy Northam, Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver
Directed by Oliver Parker
Miramax * 96 minutes
The twentieth century arguably began with the death of aesthete, decadent movement icon and gay trailblazer Oscar Wilde on November 30, 1900. How fitting, then, that the very same century is ending with a near-perfect rendition of one of Wilde's most amusing works, AN IDEAL HUSBAND, brought most vividly to life by another gay trailblazer who seems literally born to translate the works of one of the funniest men who ever lived.
What is there to say about the man who created such pearls of wisdom as "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between", "I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability", and "Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess"? With the possible exception of Dorothy Parker, no one since Wilde has been able to sculpt the English language with the same dexterity. The joy of sitting through an Oscar Wilde play, and by extension, this film, is in remembering that language alone can be used to generate laugh-out-loud lines; that in the hands of an adept wordsmith, toilet humor and sexual innuendo is not necessary.
Rupert Everett is completely, 100%, spot-on perfect as Wilde's alter-ego, Lord Goring -- a cad and wastrel whose father, the Earl of Caversham (John Wood) despairs of him ever finding a wife and living respectably. His best friend, Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) is an up-and coming politician with a perfect marriage to the stunning and gracious Gertrude (Cate Blanchett) -- until the nefarious Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore) arrives in town to blackmail him into voting for an expensive public works project by threatening to reveal the truth about how he attained his fortune and social class.
Meanwhile, the lovely Gertrude's sister, Mabel (Minnie Driver) has set her cap for the seemingly unattainable Lord Goring, and pursues him relentlessly.
This setup begins a series of mixups and drawing room mayhem, all brilliantly and crisply adapted by director Oliver Parker from Wilde's play, with a self-referential scene of a performance of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST added for good measure. Ironically, only months after AN IDEAL HUSBAND premiered in January 1895, Wilde's own experiences with defamation and the legal system (a lawsuit against the Marquess of Queensberry) began, and knowledge of Wilde's legal tribulations in his later life merely adds to the power of the play.
Wilde's works are all rife with social commentary and attacks on the Victorian propriety that he viewed as hypocrisy. His themes have a timeless quality, and AN IDEAL HUSBAND, with its theme of a woman appearing out of nowhere to blackmail and ruin a politician for sport and money is bizarrely contemporary.
The casting of this rendition is very nearly perfect. Rupert Everett truly becomes a star in his tone-perfect portrayal of the charming, yet irresponsible Lord Goring. Much has been made of Everett's role as groundbreaker in that he seems to be the first openly gay actor to be able to cause an entire audience of women to audibly gasp at his first screen appearance. Everett has a true feel for Wildeisms, punctuating them with just the right wry glances and incouciant smiles.
Jeremy Northam, so riveting in THE WINSLOW BOY, is still a bit oilier than Sir Robert ought to be, albeit the perfect straight foil for Everett's witticisms. Cate Blanchett looks fabulous, and although she has little to do for the first three-quarters of the film other than look gorgeous and gaze adoringly at Jeremy Northam, she demonstrates a light comic touch remniscent of Emma Thompson in the film's climactic scene. Julianne Moore is deliciously and gleefully evil as Mrs. Cheveley.
Only Minnie Driver seems just a bit out of place as Mabel. She's so spritely and spunky that it's hard to imagine her as a lovesick ingenue smitten with an obvious egomaniac like Lord Goring, no matter how chiseled his jaw.
The film mostly looks great, although it appears that while the men look dapper and impeccable, some corners were cut with the women's costumes. Minne Driver's dress in the last scene in particular, looks like a costume -- it seems thrown together like a bridesmaid's dress as rendered by an amateur seamstress.
An accessible portrayal of Wilde-as-wit is long overdue. The recent Stephen Fry vehicle WILDE focused more on Wilde's sexual proclivities than his humor. In recent memory, only the PBS series Lillie has adequately portrayed Wilde's more charming side. Perhaps AN IDEAL HUSBAND will create sufficient interest in Wildeiana to make such a project viable -- with the formidable Mr. Everett in the title role.
AN IDEAL HUSBAND official site
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