An Ideal Husband
directed by Oliver Parker
(Miramax, 1999)

Mrs. Laura Cheveley has one great, burning question during London's social season of 1895: Can An Ideal Husband, Sir Robert Chiltern, be persuaded to use his seat in Parliament to encourage an Argentine canal investment scheme?

Sir Robert's wife, Lady Gertrude (Cate Blanchett), would never think so. Her pure Sir Robert (Jeremy Northam) is "a man apart" from the everyday corruptions of life. Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore) knows otherwise. She knows the source of Sir Robert's wealth and what he was willing to do to attain it. And she's betting he'll help her earn money in the Argentine swindle -- or risk losing his government seat, his power, his wealth and his wife. She has a letter to help him make up his mind: a letter full of confidential information he sold to Mrs. Cheveley's stockbroker companion.

Sir Robert can support the new canal investments, and receive the incriminating letter in return, or oppose the scheme in Parliament and watch Mrs. Cheveley turn over the letter to a press that will be more than happy to tear him down. "At some point, we all have to pay for what we do," she tells Sir Robert. "You have to pay now."

Based on the Oscar Wilde play of the same name, An Ideal Husband uses its orginator's wit to great advantage. Much dialogue has been cut from the stage version, but there's enough Wilde here that An Ideal Husband will never be mistaken for current Hollywood fare.

Thankfully, when the wit is flowing it's delivered by actors who are in tune with the rhythm of the language. Besides the powerhouse combo of Blanchett and Moore, there's Minnie Driver as Sir Robert's headstrong sister, Mabel, and a stellar Rupert Everett as Lord Arthur Goring, a friend to both Lady Gertrude and Sir Robert -- and, perhaps, a suitor for Mabel, if he can ever figure out one advantage to having any sort of responsibility whatsoever.

We meet Lord Goring as a woman is slipping out of his bed and his butler, Phipps, is bringing him a fizzy hangover cure and the London Times on a silver tray. His father is eager for his 36-year-old son to get married, but Lord Goring would much rather while away his jobless days, which serve only to separate his busy nights. "Fashion," he informs the bemused Phipps, "is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear. Other people are quite dreadful." But it's Lord Goring who will end up trying to keep the Chilterns together, trying to keep Mrs. Cheveley -- an old flame -- out of mischief and trying to keep Mabel from another, more odious, suitor.

And Everett hits all the right notes. What seems out of tune, at some moments, is the film's pace. In a classic scene of miscues and misunderstandings, doors open and close, the right people are turned away and the wrong people overhear conversations. Everything should quicken, the energy should become frantic. But the film stays laid back. There's suspense, but there's never enough energy to steamroll over reality. It's still genteely paced, with barbs and blackmail propositions carefully delivered and discussed.

That said, An Ideal Husband isn't an ideal movie, but it's still an excellent one, thanks to the art of the playwright, an adaptation that captures much of the spirit and a cast that's close to perfect.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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