An Ideal Husband [DVD]
Screenplay : Oliver Parker (based on the play by Oscar Wilde)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : 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), Lindsay Duncan (Lady Markby), Peter Vaughan (Phipps)
"An Ideal Husband" is an amusing comedy of manners that takes a sharp look at love, marriage, honesty and public scandal. The film, adapted from the play by Oscar Wilde and directed by Oliver Parker (who also adapted and directed Shakespeare's "Othello" in 1995), successfully alternates between a light, witty touch, and a darker, more somber exploration of public humiliation and the price of lies. It's a delicate balancing act, and for the most part, Parker pulls it off quite nicely.
The movie takes place in England in 1895 during "The London season," which, according to the movie, is a period "where people are looking for husbands ... or hiding from them." The story concerns Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), a successful and handsome young politician who enjoys a charmed life and a happy marriage to his devoted wife, Lady Gertrud (Cate Blanchett), who looks up to him as a noble, honest man. Chiltern's life is thrown upside down when the conniving Mrs. Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore) comes to town and threatens to expose his one dark secret in exchange for his supporting a piece of legislation he is against. Chiltern's secret, which involves how he came into his wealth, would devastate him both publicly and privately.
This all takes place against the backdrop of refined English social life, and at the center of it all is Chiltern's best friend, Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett), the self-styled "idlest man in London." At 36, Lord Goring is still a swinging bachelor who is more in love with himself than anyone else. He is quite fond of admiring himself in the mirror and making witty remarks to his faithful butler, Phipps (Peter Vaughan). Lord Goring considers himself an expert on everything from fashion ("Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear") to love ("To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance"), although at one point his tells his father, " I love talking about nothing. It is the only thing I know anything about."
Because Lord Goring was once engaged to Mrs. Cheveley, he becomes entwined in her blackmail attempt. (There is a priceless scene when Goring and Cheveley first run into each other: "Are you not just a little bit pleased to see me?" she asks him. "Possibly even less than that," is his reply.) Meanwhile, Chiltern's sister, Mabel (Minnie Driver) is quietly pining away for Goring's affections, little to his notice.
"An Ideal Husband" is, at its heart, a romantic comedy of mix-ups. At one point, Chiltern begins to believe that Lord Goring is teaming up with Mrs. Cheveley to blackmail him, even though Goring is atcually trying to help him out of his predicament. There is an amusing scene in Lord Goring's house where he is trying to split his time among his overly critical father (John Wood), Chiltern, and Mrs. Cheveley, all of whom are in the house in different rooms and have no idea any of the others are there.
Two things make the movie worth seeing: Oscar Wilde's dead-on witticism that hasn't aged a day in more than 100 years, and the fine performances by everyone involved. Rupert Everett is perfectly dapper as the egocentric bachelor; he manages to evoke smug self-love without turning his character into a dislikable cad. He's slick without being utterly smarmy.
Jeremy Northam is also quite good in his role as Chiltern, and he also manages a balancing act of his own, playing a character who has done an awful thing in his past, but still manages to maintain sympathy with the audience because of his otherwise honest approach to life and good heart. His dedicated marriage to Gertrud may strike some as unrealistic in its sappiness, but Northam and Blanchett manage to strike a note of true love.
Parker does a good job of adapting the play by keeping most of Wilde's witty asides, which help cover up the strains and contrivances in the plot (although the ending is still too neat and tidy). He also streamlines the play by removing a few subplots while also opening up the physical space in which it takes place. Wilde staged the entire play in only three rooms, but Parker places scenes not only inside libraries and ballrooms, but in beautiful outdoor locations like Rotten Row in Hyde Park.
Although "An Ideal Husband" is a comedy, it is the more serious aspects that stay with you after it's over. Seeing Chiltern torn over whether to sacrifice his public life by staying true to his beliefs, or salvaging himself by bending to Mrs. Cheveley's demands, is sometimes wrenching to watch. In many ways, the movie takes on the tone of a morality play, and it is refreshing to see a story where characters have the dignity and honesty to make sacrifices for simple ethical principles. The movie makes the point that we all make mistakes and have skeletons in our past, while also asking the question, What price should we pay for them?
Oscar Wilde knew a great deal about scandal--he was thrown in jail for two years and publicly despised after his homosexuality was uncovered--and it is hard to watch Chiltern's dilemma without thinking about Wilde's own history. As Wilde himself wrote, he ended his career in "horrible disgrace." "An Ideal Husband" is about a character who risks the same fate and, through his own honesty and the help of his friends and loved ones, triumphs in a way Wilde never could.
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: 5.1 Dolby Surround
Extras: Production Featurette
Video: The anamorphically enhanced widescreen (1.85:1) picture on this disc looks great. "An Ideal Husband" is a beautifully shot film, and it contains a number of elaborate visual images such as fancy balls and lovely exterior shots done on location in Rotten Row in Hyde Park. The disc reproduces these images with striking color and contrast. Flesh tones look good, and the picture is bright and clear.
Audio: The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack isn't a system tester, but it gets the job done. The majority of "An Ideal Husband" is dialogue, much of which is delivered in hushed voices, so the real test is whether or not the characters could be clearly understood. For the most part, the dialogue was consistently easy to hear and did not require constant volume changes.
Extras: The disc features a five-minute production featurette that doesn't offer much in the way of insight into the film. It is comprised mostly of scenes from the movie interspersed with a few brief bits of interviews with cast and crew. Not much there.
©1999, 2000 James Kendrick