Adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play, An Ideal Husband is a lesser-known work, one that lacks a certain quality that makes for delicious farce; namely, mistaken identity and/or scandal, with a hint of real naughtiness. The work does contain classic farcical situations that could easily be resolved if people would just be more determined, i.e. “Now just wait a moment, hear me out,” or “No no what *actually* happened is this” – misunderstandings are essential in farce. However, An Ideal Husband has a certain bland center plot device which is difficult to jazz up. Loathe as I am to compare a still-enjoyable movie to one that was patently unenjoyable, this one point of comparison is inescapable: The political ballyhoos of An Ideal Husband are, in content and ferocity, as interesting as the trade treaties being discussed in Phantom Menace.
I must now defend this movie voraciously: The acting (and dialogue) is what makes this movie work where the other failed. The story is thin, the situations frustratingly easy to make right, but the lovely ensemble with their arched brows and self-interested half-smiles are what carry this movie. Rupert Everett is the edible Lord Goring and Jeremy Northam his friend and foil. Cate Blanchett is lovely here, proving that Elizabeth was not a fluke, and quietly begging us with her eyes to cast her in a real comedienne role, and soon! Minnie Driver is her usual bizarre, spastic self, and finally Julianne Moore, making up for Lost World with a spanking British accent and a cunning resemblance to Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons.
An Ideal Husband was not the romp I had taken it to be, and the political plot point is a bit dry even by British standards, but every shot is rife with beauty and elegance and every actor is dripping with subtext and wit and irony and that is the true delight of the film. It more than makes up for the unfortunately languid pacing.
Director Oliver Parker also adapted the screenplay, as he has done one other time, with 1995’s Othello (Laurence Fishburne). He clearly takes a long time to be very wedded to his text before committing it to film, and took great pains with his production team making every little detail just so. The production design, props, costumes, small touches everywhere, are scrumptious. I can’t say how much is Parker’s directing and how much is his superb ensemble’s cleverness. It seems as though some scenes (the ones that felt as if they markedly decelerated the quick dialogue) he just didn’t know what to do and just let his people do what they do and just capture it on film. Fortunately, he cast good people: I hate to think what might have happened with a group where Jeremy Northam was the strongest actor on screen instead of the weakest as here. No offense to Mr. Northam, but he, being the Ideal Husband and all, should have been a stronger link. He is no detriment, only an underused fulcrum that could have vaulted the film further.
Rupert Everett plays quite the ladies man, which is a tad amusing. The Hollywood school of thought that says that the American public does not want to know if their leading man is gay because it will undermine him as a lover or hero has nothing to worry about. Except for not being altogether passionate about his kissing scenes, Everett is a total cad and a dreamboat, just as he should be. Fortunately, in Wilde’s society, a man could be heterosexual and still effetely vain about his cravat. He’s a pleasure to watch, really. It’s a pleasant diversion but sadly, little more than a chance to hear Rupert’s barbed wit.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/18/99 NY/LA
Time in minutes 97
Director Oliver Parker