What sticks out most about Oliver Parker's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" is its perfect casting. The talented ensemble of actors delightfully breathes new life into a work penned at the approach of the last new millennium. More important, however, is one's second reaction to Parker's film: The sly observation that despite the different time period, how very contemporary is the play's consideration of morality. Or its lack of same, especially in the realm of government and service to the people.
"An Ideal Husband" remains a Wilde drawing-room comedy, most certainly, but Parker makes the period piece echo with current events. And while Parker has fiddled and whittled with the source material, this adaptation still brims with Wilde's trademark witty repartee.
The piece begins in Britain, a century ago when that sceptered isle was the world's superpower and the men who deigned to lead her were to the manor born. Wilde's hero, Sir Robert Chiltern ("The Winslow Boy's" Jeremy Northam), is such a man. Sir Robert is on the threshold of a brilliant career and has his eyes firmly on the prize the office of Prime Minister.
Stumping for support like any good politician no matter the century, Sir Robert has a catchy, all-inclusive slogan: "Commerce with a conscience." Sound familiar? How about another candidate, in another time, advocating conservatism with compassion? And like his more modern counterpart, Sir Robert has a secret far more politically and personally damaging than any "inappropriate relationship" with an intern. This secret makes Sir Robert vulnerable to the blackmailing wiles of one Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore).
We meet the glamorous Mrs. C at Sir Robert's grand London residence during a fashionable soiree presided over by his devoted and intelligent wife Gertrude (Cate Blanchett). Never one to pussyfoot, Mrs. C is quite pointed with Sir Robert. She wants him to stand up in Parliament and endorse a scam for a canal in the Argentine. If Sir Robert refuses, she will make known just how he though born poor made his fortune.
A desperate Sir Robert turns to his best friend, the dashing Lord Goring (Rupert Everett). With the arrival of Everett's Goring, "An Ideal Husband" moves well beyond the boundaries of a simple tale of blackmail. This shift heightens the wit and brings center stage the scene-stealing charms of Everett.
Although most Wilde scholars rightfully consider the movie's source material one of the British playwright's lesser works, it is full of wonderful Wilde-isms. Most poignantly, the kind of life-damning scandal that threatens Sir Robert did indeed destroy Wilde while "An Ideal Husband" was playing in London. Knowing this, Everett's Goring becomes the embodiment of Wilde. Playful, cunning and given to wild yet knowing pronouncements practically every time he deigns to comment, Lord Goring is just the adversary to duel with the opportunistic Mrs. Cheveley. Saving Sir Robert takes precedence over saving his own much-revered bachelorhood. Soon his actions find him in the romantic cross-hairs of Sir Robert's enchanting but quite strong-willed sister Mabel (Minnie Driver) and his own father, Lord Caversham (John Wood).
Parker directs this ensemble piece with the same deftness with which he handled Shakespeare's "Othello." Purists may rankle at the streamlining and whittling Parker has done to Wilde's words, but the rest of us should be delighted with the result. And like his "Othello," "An Ideal Husband" shows off Parker's uncanny ability to make an adaptation play like a movie instead of a filmed play.
"An Ideal Husband" is the kind of period piece the British do so well. Elegant and witty, with gorgeous settings and sumptuous costumes that never overpower the story, this movie is the perfect antidote to the summer's wave of blockbuster
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