“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.

“PERSUASION” (1995) Review

“PERSUASION” (1995) Review

Twenty-four years after the BBC aired its 1971 version of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel, ”Persuasion”; and twelve years before ITV aired its adaptation; Columbia Pictures released its own version on British television and in movie theaters across the U.S. The movie went on to become highly acclaimed, the winner of a BAFTA TV award for Best Single Drama, and regarded as the definitive version of Austen’s novel. 

Directed by Roger Michell, ”PERSUASION” told the story of Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of an impoverished baronet in Regency England. Seven or eight years before the story began, she had been persuaded to reject the marriage proposal of a young and ambitious Royal Navy officer named Frederick Wentworth by her godmother and late mother’s friend, Lady Russell. After spending so many years in deep regret over her action, Anne found herself facing Wentworth again during a visit to her younger sister’s home. Now a captain and wealthy from the spoils of the recent Napoleonic Wars, Wentworth continued to harbor a good deal of residual anger and resentment toward Anne. And the latter continued to harbor remorse over her actions and a passionate love for the naval officer.

After watching the 2007 version of ”PERSUASION”, I found myself wondering how I would regard this particular version. Needless to say, I found it very satisfying. Michell did an excellent job in capturing the ambivalence of Austen’s novel. The center of that ambivalence rested on the underlying passion of Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth’s romantic history. And this passion beautifully permeated the movie; thanks to Michell, screenwriter Nick Dear and the two leads – Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. The movie relived all of the passion and emotions of their relationship – both positive and negative. Michell and Dear also did a top-notch job in revealing the initial dangers that the British aristocracy and landed gentry faced from their complacency, arrogance and unwillingness to match the ambitious endeavors of the rising middle-class; especially through characters like Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot.

As much as I had enjoyed ”PERSUASION”, I believe it had its flaws. One of those flaws turned out to be the scene featuring Anne and Wentworth’s final reconciliation on one of the streets of Bath. It could have been a wonderful and poignant moment . . . if it were not for the circus performers and pedestrians making a ruckus in the background. It nearly spoiled the romantic mood for me. And there were at least two performances that did not sit right with me. I will discuss them later. This version of ”PERSUASION” seemed to be the only adaptation that portrayed Mrs. Croft as the younger sister. Fiona Shaw, who is at least five years younger than Ciarán Hinds and looked it even with minimal makeup, portrayed his sister. Yet, both the 1971 and 2007 versions had cast an actress that was older than the actor portraying Wentworth. And I happened to know for a fact that at age 31, the Fredrick Wentworth character is at least seven (7) years younger than his sister. There is no way that the 42 year-old Hinds could have passed as a man eleven (11) younger, despite his handsome looks.

But my main problem with this adaptation turned out to be the same problem I had with the 2007 version – namely the character of William Elliot, Sir Walter’s heir presumptive. Because the baronet had no male issue, his baronetcy and the Kellynch estate will pass to William, his cousin. But William, fearing that Sir Walter might marry Mrs. Clay, the companion of the oldest Elliot daughter; schemed to woo and marry Anne in order to prevent Mrs. Clay from becoming Sir Walter’s second wife and protect his inheritance. As I had explained in my review of the 2007 version, this scenario failed to make any sense to me. Even if William had succeeded in preventing any marriage between Sir Walter and Mrs. Clay, there was no way he could consistently prevent the Elliot patriarch from considering another bride for matrimony. Even if he had married Anne. Quite frankly, it was a situation that had been beyond his control. Dear tried to give urgency to William’s situation by portraying him as financially broke after spending all of his late wife’s money. As far as I am concerned, Dear’s efforts to do this, by changing William’s financial situation failed. Sir Walter’s lawyer had made it clear around the beginning of the story that it would take years for Kellynch to recover from the Elliots’ debts. Nor did following Austen’s story by making William a romantic rival of Wentworth for Anne’s affections. She did not seem that impressed by William’s character, despite his charm and wit. If Dear had simply avoided Austen’s characterization of William Elliot and allowed him to retain his fortune; he could have been a formidable rival for Wentworth, just as Louisa Musgrove proved to be a strong rival for Anne in the story’s first half.

I cannot deny that ”PERSUASION” strongly benefited from the excellent performances of the two leads, Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. Root was superb as a sad and remorseful woman who began to bloom again over the possibility of a renewed love. With very little dialogue, she was excellent in a montage that featured her character’s reaction to the Musgroves’ carping over Anne’s younger sister, Mary Musgrove. But my favorite scene happened to featured Anne and Wentworth’s first meeting after eight years at Charles and Mary Musgrove’s cottage. With her eyes and body language, Root conveyed Anne’s series of emotions from seeing the naval officer again after so many years with great skill. Despite being a decade older than his character, Ciarán Hinds was equally impressive as Captain Frederick Wentworth, the successful Royal Navy officer who tried to hide his continuing resentment toward Anne’s rejection of him with a hearty manner and friendly overtures toward the Musgrove sisters – Louisa and Henrietta. One particular scene that impressed me featured Wentworth’s recollection of the year 1806 (the year Anne had rejected his marriage proposal). Hinds skillfully conveyed the character’s lingering resentment . . . and love for Anne in what struck me as a subtle moment.

Other excellent performances came from Sophie Thompson, who did a top-notch job as Anne’s younger sister, the emotionally clinging Mary Elliot Musgrove; Simon Russell Beale as Charles Musgrove, Mary’s consistently exasperated husband; Fiona Shaw, who wonderfully conveyed Sophia Wentworth Croft’s strong mind, along with her love for her husband and her role as a naval officer’s wife in a charming scene; and Susan Fleetwood, who have a complex performance in her last role as Anne’s well-meaning, yet prejudiced godmother, Lady Russell. But the one supporting performance that really impressed me came from Samuel West’s portrayal of the conniving William Elliot. He gave a deliciously smooth performance that radiated wit and charm. I found him so likeable that I almost felt sorry for him when Anne finally announced her engagement to Wentworth.

Unfortunately, not all of the performances impressed me. Despite my admiration for the late Corin Redgrave’s skills as an actor, I must admit that I found his portrayal of Anne’s narcissist and arrogant father, Sir Walter Elliot, a little off-putting. I realize that the character happened to be one of the outrageous characters in the novel. Unfortunately, Redgrave’s portrayal of Sir Walter’s narcissism seemed a little too mannered and broad. However, Redgrave’s Sir Walter seemed like a mild annoyance in compare to Phoebe Nicholls’ portrayal of the eldest Elliot sibling, Elizabeth. Nicholls portrayed the character as an over-the-top diva suffering from a damaged nervous system. I could not help but wonder if she had been on crack during the production. Or perhaps Michell was on crack for allowing such a performance to remain in the film.

Overall, ”PERSUASION” was an excellent adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds’ performances, Nick Dear’s screenplay and Roger Michell’s direction infused the movie with a mature passion rarely touched upon in the adaptation of Austen’s other novels. Does this mean that I regard this movie as the best adaptation of Austen’s 1818 novel? No. Like the 2007 version, it had a number of flaws that prevented it from becoming ”the” best. But I must admit that it is pretty damn good.