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Weekly Alibi An Ideal Husband

Wilde World

By Devin D. O'Leary

JULY 5, 1999:  It would take a pack of poorly-trained monkeys to mess up the words of Oscar Wilde. Like Neil Simon's best work (The Odd Couple, for example), Wilde's dialogue is witty even when spoken in a talentless monotone (which may be why you see The Odd Couple and The Importance of Being Earnest staged so often in community theater). Give these urbane lines to some polished actors, however, and you've got a glorious melding of art and entertainment.

Far from being staffed by a pack of poorly-trained monkeys, the breezy new film adaptation of Wilde's lesser known legiter, An Ideal Husband, has the significant luck to star some of filmdom's most respected thesps. Among the actors appearing perfectly at home in Wilde's late Victorian era are Cate Blanchett (still riding the crest of Elizabeth), Minnie Driver (a perfectly excellent actress whose skull seems to get bigger with every role), Rupert Everett (Julia Roberts' gay dream date in My Best Friend's Wedding), Julianne Moore (best known for her sexy, brittle turn in Boogie Nights) and Jeremy Northam (last seen in The Winslow Boy).

Rupert Everett commands center stage as Arthur Goring, an unapologetically dandy bachelor, whose life is more than full with romancing the ladies of 1890s London, deciding what clothes to wear for the evening and otherwise avoiding such taxing prospects as marriage or work. On the opposite end of the male spectrum is Arthur's lifelong friend, Sir Robert Chiltern (Northam). Chiltern is a perfect gentleman, a respectable Member of Parliament, and "the ideal husband." The object of Sir Robert's spousal perfection is Lady Chiltern (Blanchett). Admired by all, the Chilterns present the very model of wedded bliss -- that is until the scheming Mrs. Cheveley (Moore) shows her snooty nose. Seems that Mrs. Cheveley has possession of a certain letter from Sir Robert's past. This letter reveals involvement in a hidden financial impropriety. In order to prevent this letter from seeing the light of day, Sir Robert need only endorse in front of Parliament a highly questionable land deal in which Mrs. Cheveley is involved.

Put between a rock and a hard place, Sir Robert turns to his old pal Arthur. Surely, Arthur's elegant charm, vicious verbal repartee and absolute refusal to take anything seriously can cut some slack with the scheming Mrs. Cheveley. Before long, Lord Goring is himself caught up in a tangled web of lies, temptations and trysts. First of all, there's the problem of Arthur's own father, who insists upon instilling a damnable work ethic in his lazy offspring. Then there's the problem of Sir Robert's younger sister Mabel (Driver). Mabel is the only woman that Arthur Goring actually respects. How much longer can the inveterate bachelor resist her feminine charms? Finally, there's a little roadblock to dealing with Mrs. Cheveley -- namely, the fact that Arthur Goring used to be engaged to her.

Though these romantic and political entanglements border on bedroom farce, the script never wavers from the high road, and should strike even the most temporal-centric viewers as invigoratingly modern. Sex and politics never go out of style, as Monica Lewinsky's book publisher can attest.

The cast for An Ideal Husband couldn't be any more, well, ideal. Blanchett and Driver do excellent work dragging their characters into the 20th century. No wilting violets, these ladies are more than ready to go toe-to-toe with their male counterparts. Julianne Moore, meanwhile, has an absolutely wonderful time being deliciously wicked. Rupert Everett, though, is the epitome of perfect casting as the witty, womanizing party-goer. With this summer's villainous turn in Inspector Gadget and his upcoming role opposite Madonna in The Next Big Thing, Everett seems poised to become the world's first outwardly gay superstar. To single out Everett as a gay actor, however, is to denigrate his considerable talents. I've been championing Everett's cause ever since I saw him in 1994's art house horror Dellamorte, Dellamore (Cemetery Man, here in America). Everett shot into the limelight thanks to My Best Friend's Wedding, and he seems ready to stay there. Equally at home playing both straight and gay roles, Everett obviously relishes the chance to play the prototypical English dandy and to spout such prime Wilde wordage as, "I love talking about nothing. It is the only thing I know anything about."

Director Oliver Parker (who gave us Laurence Fishburne's brooding, sexy version of Othello) has sharpened Wilde's original play, giving a stronger emotional footing upon which Wilde's already razor-honed dialogue can stand. The political and economic machinations have been strengthened in comparison to Wilde's lightweight source material. Though the rapid-fire happy ending still smacks of drawing room farce, the emotional motivations behind the characters are much more believable. Although some may consider such alterations sacrilegious, one has to understand the vast difference between theater and film. Rarely does An Ideal Husband feel like a stagebound adaptation. Instead, it zips along at a jaunty clip, forcing reviewers like myself to dig deep into their bag of antiquated adjectives for compliments like "delightful" and "utterly charming." Parker has made Wilde's world seem real, contemporary and completely exhilarating. Somewhere, Oscar Wilde is smirking in his grave.

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