“AN IDEAL HUSBAND” (1999) Review

“AN IDEAL WOMAN” (1999) Review

I have a confession. I have not seen that many adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s plays and novels. And it has been quite a while since I viewed my last adaptation, namely the 1999 film, “AN IDEAL HUSBAND”. I was surprised to discover that this 1999 movie was not the first adaptation of Wilde’s 1895 stage play. There have been other adaptations – including four other films and several radio productions. But this is the only adaptation I have ever seen.

Written and directed by Oliver Parker, “AN IDEAL HUSBAND” opens with a ball held at the home of British government minister Sir Robert Chiltern and his wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern. Among those attending the ball are:

*Arthur, Viscount Goring, a close friend of the Chilterns
*Mrs. Laura Cheveley, a former British socialite and Lady Gertrude’s former schoolmate
*Miss Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert’s younger sister
*Earl of Caversham, Lord Arthur’s father
*Lady Markby, a friend of Mrs. Cheveley
*Tommy Trafford, Sir Robert’s aide and potential suitor for Mabel
*Sir Edward, a newspaper baron

During the ball, Mrs. Cheveley approaches Sir Robert with a request to help support a fraudulent scheme she is financing to build a canal in Argentina. Mrs. Cheveley’s request is tainted with blackmail. If Sir Robert does not agree to her request, she plans to reveal that he had sold a Cabinet secret to her late mentor and lover, Baron Arnheim, which enabled the latter to buy shares in the Suez Canal Company three days before the British government announced its purchase of the company. Arnheim’s payoff was the basis of Sir Robert’s fortune and Mrs. Cheveley has Robert’s letter to Arnheim as proof of the latter’s crime. In desperation, Robert turns to his friend, Arthur Goring, to help him deal with the blackmailing socialite, who was a former lover of Arthur.

I understand there had been changes made to Oscar Wilde’s original plot. Since I have never read or seen the play, I will not comment on these changes. Instead, I want to discuss the movie. Overall, I thought it was an entertaining and charming tale about the slippery slopes of moral ambiguity and social hypocrisy. As I watched the movie’s narrative unfold, it occurred to me that it revolved around a good deal of hiding, deception and misconceptions – the very traits that have been a part of romantic comedies in Hollywood for years. The epitome of this kind of storytelling could be found in the sequence in which Lord Goring found himself greeting a variety of visitors inside his home during the space of one night, while he and his valet struggled to keep all or most of them hidden in separate rooms. “AN IDEAL HUSBAND” also featured some sparkling dialogue, thanks to the pens of Oscar Wilde and the movie’s screenwriter/director, Oliver Parker. Both Rupert Everett and Julianne Moore received the cream of the lines:

“Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear. Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.” – Arthur, Lord Goring

“Do you know, Gertrude, I don’t mind your talking morality a bit. Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. You dislike me, I am quite aware of that, and I have always detested you.” – Mrs. Laura Cheveley

“All I know, Gertrude, is that it takes great courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it. And even more courage to see it in the one you love. Gertrude, you have more courage than any woman I have ever known. Do not be afraid now to use it.” – Lord Goring

As one can see, Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheverley are among my two favorite characters in the story, along with young Mabel Chiltern. Most of the other characters seemed to wallow in arrogance, self-deception or priggishness. My least favorite character proved to be Sir Robert Chiltern. I found him not only priggish, but also hypocritical and dishonest. I realize that audiences are supposed to regard Mrs. Cheveley as the worst kind. And perhaps she is. But her dishonesty did not strike me as hypocritical, as Sir Robert’s.

I have two problems with the plot for “AN IDEAL HUSBAND”. I also found it rather annoying that she was the only character who suffered for her dishonesty . . . unlike Sir Robert. The worst he had suffered was a scare and a wife whose disappointment in him only lasted a few days. Then again . . . Oscar Wilde was a man. I should not have been surprised that he would have allowed Sir Robert to suffer as little consequences as possible for his transgressions. Another problem I had with the movie was its last half hour. Following Laura Cheveley’s departure from London, Lord Goring finally asked Mable Chiltern for her hand in marriage. However, Sir Robert had refused to give, due to his discovery that Lord Goring and Laura Cheveley had been lovers in the past. The plot for the film’s last half hour seemed like a completely different story, aside from it being a consequence of Lord Goring’s past. I think Laura Cheveley left the story some twenty to thirty minutes too soon. This made the last half hour feel almost disjointed and unnecessary.

I have no complaints about the movie’s production and look. I really enjoyed Michael Howells’ production designs for the film. I thought he did an excellent job of re-creating late Victorian London. This was especially apparent in crowd scenes that featuring the elite riding along Hyde Park’s Rotten Row and balls and parties for the elite, including the Chiltern’s ball during the film’s first half. Howells’ work was greatly enhanced by Rod McLean’s art direction and Katie Lee’s set decorations. Yes, I have not forgotten about the costume designs created by Caroline Harris. What can I say? They were exquisite, as shown in the images below:

 

The performances featured in “AN IDEAL HUSBAND” struck me as first-rate. There was not a performance in this movie that did not failed to impress me. The movie featured solid, yet charming performances from the likes of Ben Pullen, Nikolas Grace, Peter Vaughn, Marsha Fitzlan, Simon Russell Beale and Lindsay Duncan, whom I found especially entertaining as Laura Cheveley’s witty friend, Lady Markby. Jeroen Krabbé did an excellent job in conveying the ambiguous, yet corrupt nature of Sir Robert’s mentor, Baron Arnheim. John Wood gave a slightly funny performance as Lord Goring’s stuffy father, the Earl of Caversham. Minnie Driver’s portrayal of Sir Robert’s younger sister Mabel Chiltern not only struck me as funny, witty and completely charming.

I must admit that I found the characters of Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude Chiltern a bit off-putting, but I cannot deny that both Jeremy Northam and Cate Blanchett breathed life into their characters. Northam did an excellent job in capturing the hypocrisy and ambition of Sir Robert Chiltern. And Northam also ably conveyed Sir Robert’s obvious love for his wife. Blanchett gave an equally skillful performance as Lady Gertrude Chiltern. The actress did an excellent job of portraying how Gertrude’s love for Sir Robert dangerously edged toward blind idealism and the character’s emotional devastation upon learning about her husband’s past transgression. Julianne Moore earned a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Mrs. Laura Cheveley. And it was a well deserved nomination, as far as I am concerned. I thought she gave one of the film’s best performances as the scheming blackmailing socialite, who also possessed a talent for acute and pragmatic observations of human nature and society. The film’s other best performance came from Rupert Everett, who portrayed the superficially self-absorbed Lord Goring. And that is one of the reasons why I enjoyed Everett’s performance so much. He managed to convey the warmth and wisdom underneath the shallow playboy with style, wit and subtlety. Like Moore, Everett managed to earn a Golden Globe nomination.

I enjoyed “AN IDEAL HUSBAND”. Well . . . most of it. I thought Oliver Parker did an excellent job of adapting Oscar Wilde’s play with a witty script and a first-rate cast led by Rupert Everett. It is a pity that the last act of the movie seemed almost like an afterthought. Oh well.

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