An Ideal Husband
Rating -

Comedy (US/UK); 1999; Rated PG-13; 97 Minutes

Rupert Everett: Lord Arthur Goring
Julianne Moore: Mrs. Laura Cheveley
Jeremy Northam: Sir Robert Chiltern
Cate Blanchett: Lady Gertrud Chiltern
Minnie Driver: Mabel Chiltern
John Wood: Earl of Caversham

Produced by Nicky Kentish Barnes, Andrea Calderwood, Bruce Davey, Uri Fruchtmann, Ralph Kamp, Susan B. Landau, Barnaby Thompson and Paul L. Tucker; Directed and screenwritten by Oliver Parker; based on the play by Oscar Wilde

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Written by DAVID KEYES

The forte of Oscar Wilde is the 19th-century equivalent of William Shakespeare's, because the words and phrases you hear are so intelligent and unique that they echo in your head hours after being heard. The only thing that makes them different is the time period they were written in. Patently, both men were way ahead of their period, changing the faces of literature and theater in such a way that seems almost undoable by today's writers. People of this caliber can absorb their audience so effortlessly in their work, we imagine the job is as easy for them as it is for us to ride a bicycle.

Lately, a new trend has sprung loose in the cinema, in which movies tackle the famous work of legendary poets in attempt to add contemporary realism to them. Is that because moviemakers are running out of ideas? Maybe. Another possibility could be that the average filmmaker enjoys a challenge, and bringing literature like this to the screen is a difficult job. Alas, most of the time we see Hollywood butcher the classic stories in attempt to add fresh perspectives to century-old tales. Thankfully, like John Madden and Kenneth Branagh, Oliver Parker seemingly knows how to properly handle the job, and his new screen adaptation of Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" is an invigorating, original experience--probably the best screen adaptation of any poet's work seen since Kenneth Branagh's interpretation of "Hamlet."

Such an adaptation comes across effectively because the writer's topics are not limited to certain time periods. The play was written in 1895, and Parker's movie is done around the same time period, with contemporary feeling. But peal away the surface of the look and attitude, and what you find underneath are the same misgivings that afflict every strip of society--greed, lust, fear, anxiety, envy, blackmail--a list that is compromised of virtually every form of human dysfunction. "An Ideal Husband" is a work that can succeed in several different time periods, simply because it contains those physiognomies of typical human life. Maybe this is why the story is considered Wilde's best.

And this wonderful story is also blessed with a brilliant cast. Front in line is Rupert Everett, who plays Lord Arthur Goring , a man described by friends as the "idlest man in London." And no wonder; his sharp wardrobe, dashing smile, strong voice and taunting good looks are no match for anyone, except the vivacious Mabel Chiltern (Minnie Driver), a woman who is probably the only in existence to match his witticism in verbal discussions. They flirt, pass smiles, dirty looks, and interact as if they are destined lovers. Unfortunately, Goring is not the kind of "idle" man to be anchored down by marriage, and attempts to avoid the subject from his ever-pressing father, the Earl of Caversham, result in some scenes where the dashing gentlemen describes how he "loves talking about nothing." The words are always clever, and they arrive at just the right time.

Then there's Goring's closest friends, Lord Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) and his wife (Cate Blanchett). Chiltern's bride is devoted to her husband down to the last drop of blood, and not just because he is a wealthy gentlemen. She considers him "the ideal husband," although later plot twists reveal otherwise. Chiltern is preparing a report on condemning a canal project, but a former acquaintance of the gentleman named Laura Chevely has much at stake if the proposal is accepted. Thus, blackmail comes into the picture, in which Chevely (Julianne Moore) threatens to expose the illegal way Chiltern attained his wealth if he does not speak positively of the project.

These are Oscar-worthy performances. Rupert Everett, who is always under-appreciated by Academy voters, churns out an observant portrayal of the "idles man of London," conveying all of Wilde's dialogue on target . It is ostensible that he has studied the playwrights work in the past. And Cate Blanchett, who incessantly has the penchant of giving us Oscar-calibre performances, comes off magnificent as Chiltern's wife, who is sure she has married an honest man, but ultimately unaware of his crimes of the past (at least for a certain length of the movie).

The plot and characters are dynamic, yes, but in terms of dialogue, movies don't get any better than this. There is a certain admiration we all have for delectable parley in the movies, because, as Wilde taught us repeatedly, it can get us past most, if any, problem areas within the plot. Sometimes, without sweet words pouring from the mouths of the characters, we lose interest in the story, and therefore the movie falls into fragments. Oliver Parker's "An Ideal Husband" is one of the finest examples of conversation outmatching story and characters, a feat only accomplished by the classic poets Wilde and Shakespeare. In a summer filled with creature features, obscene teen comedies and cruel little cartoons, here is something that steps up to the batting cage and hits a home run.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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