Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle An Ideal Husband

By Hollis Chacona

JULY 5, 1999: 

D: Oliver Parker; with Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore, Jeremy Northam, John Wood, Peter Vaughan. (PG-13, 96 min.)

It would seem, given Oscar Wilde's immortal rapier wit and cinema's recent affinity for clever period comedy, that An Ideal Husband would be a sure thing, full of clever riposte and sumptuous staging and preeminent actors. But this big-screen version of Wilde's stylish match of deceit and honor, loyalty and betrayal, is more parry than thrust. Sir Robert Chiltern (Northam) is young, handsome, successful, and madly in love with his virtuous, but passionate, wife, Gertrude (Blanchett), who is blissfully unaware of his cloudy past. Indeed, their life is enviable, beyond reproach, and by all accounts Robert's ascendancy from the House of Commons into the Prime Minister's cabinet is destined. However, in Victorian England (especially in Wilde's Victorian England), no one is truly beyond reproach. Enter the Machiavellian Mrs. Chevely, (Moore) recently returned to London and in possession of a letter proving Chiltern's past political indiscretion. The beautiful black widow threatens to ruin his career unless he supports a South American canal scam that undermines everything Chiltern now stands for. If he changes his stand on the canal, he will lose the respect and love of his wife. If he does not, his past wrong will be exposed, and he will lose all that and more. Only Chiltern's best friend and professional dilettante, Lord Arthur Goring (Everett), can save him, and he seems a delightfully dismal candidate for selfless heroism. Goring is, of course, the most decadent and delicious of the characters and thus is blessed with the best dialogue -- wickedly funny and razor sharp. His exchanges with his overbearing father (Wood) and forbearing valet (Vaughan) are the most engaging of the picture, and his discourse on clothing alone is worth the price of admission. But the stuttering cadence of Parker's direction dulls the edge of Wilde's wordplay. What the film needs is a seamless, slippery flow of characters, the flutter of cutaway tails around a corner, the rustle of taffeta in the shadows -- the narrowly missed encounters and near-tragic timing so crucial to the story's telling. But this production feels contrived; you can almost hear a stage manager cueing the next entrance. Even the stellar cast, with its considerable charm, seems a bit muddled about how to play their characters. Driver is dreadful, her thoroughly modern Mable annoyingly, well, modern. And while Blanchett is solid, and Everett has brief moments of brilliance, only Moore, whose heaving bosoms and small, sharp, pearly smile perfectly embodies the layers of Victorian temptation and repression and reprisal, really shines. A thrilling lunge here and a clever blow there puts An Ideal Husband a cut above more pedestrian film fare, but if it is a Sense and Sensibility or a Shakespeare in Love you're looking for, you'll be foiled again.

2.5 stars

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