..

AN IDEAL HUSBAND

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Jeremy Northam, Minnie Driver
Director:  Oliver Parker
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Miramax
Features:  Production Featurette
Length:  98 Minutes
Release Date:  January 18, 2000

Film ***

An Ideal Husband is bound to be a picture that doesn’t appeal to all tastes.  For starters, it’s pretty much a solid hour and a half of dialogue, but not just any dialogue—Oscar Wilde’s deliciously cynical words, barbs, and observations about society.  He lived in a time when rigid British society was painfully structured and mannered, and every gentlemen and lady subscribed to and played by the rules.  Through his plays, Wilde was like a smart aleck kid, who may have been told not to come out of his room, but takes personal pleasure in stepping out of bounds when nobody was looking.

Though Shakespeare has enjoyed quite a cinematic renaissance in the last decade, filmed works by Oscar Wilde have been considerably scarcer.  Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Shakespeare peppered his dialogue with bits of action, and plenty of room for an enterprising director to move around and mold the play to fit his own particular vision.  In other words, you could conceivably turn Romeo and Juliet into a modern day story, as was done in the last few years.  However, Oscar Wilde’s plays were generally centered on characters and their interaction with each other.  There were very few duels, murders, or battles to play with in his works.  And being that he often targeted British upper class sensibilities, you could never break a play like An Ideal Husband out of the time frame from which it was conceived.  As it is, there are bound to be a few incidents of head scratching from modern audiences who can’t quite conceive of the type of world these characters exist in.

This play is not as funny as Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, but I have determined one thing:  English actor Rupert Everett and Oscar Wilde are two artists that were made for one another, and I personally hope somebody will have the vision to make a new movie version of Earnest and cast him in the role of Algernon.  Here, he plays Lord Goring, a wealthy “gentlemen” who exists in good society, but has just enough cynicism to appear slightly on the outside.  It may not seem like such a big deal to modern audiences, but this kind of daring was exactly what delighted Wilde’s theatre goers in his day.

The plot is actually a series of smaller conflicts, all of which are basically much ado about nothing.  When an expatriate from Vienna, Mrs. Cheveley (Moore) returns to the British society that frowned upon her, she does so with a mission.  She has evidence of a shady deal conducted by a rising star in the Parliament, Robert Chiltern (Northam), back when his political career was just starting.  Currently, he is looked on as a pillar of virtue in politics, a fact that his wife, Gertrude (Blanchett) takes great pride in.  Mrs. Cheveley wants to blackmail Chiltern into supporting a deal that would mean a great return on an investment she made, but would be detrimental to English interests.

It turns out Mrs. Cheveley has also enjoyed a past with Lord Goring, and would seemingly like another chance at a future.  Goring is the best friend of Chiltern, and wants to protect him from the scandal that would surely end his career and his marriage in one blow.  After a few playful scenes of mistaken identity and missed opportunities, he takes her up on a proposal.  She believes Chiltern will cave in to her demands.  He thinks his friend would never behave so dishonorably now, no matter what the consequences.  So a bargain is struck:  if Chiltern sticks by his principles, she will turn over Goring the condemning letter.  If he buckles in order to save himself, Goring will have to marry her.

This is the story at the heart of the play, but there is much more in the offering as well, including a rather cynical romance (of sorts) between the confirmed and self centered bachelor Goring and Mabel (Driver), the sister of Gertrude, most of which allows for Wilde to scribble his sarcastic views toward love, relationships, and things romantic.

One of the best attributes of Oscar Wilde is the way he draws his characters.  He shies away from the conventions of good people and bad people, and instead, gives all of those in his plays a bit of an evil streak.  Generally not enough to make them bad, per se, but enough to keep them all slightly self-serving and cynical, and frankly, a bit more realistic.  Usually, his characters don’t interact without playing some kind of mental chess game with each other, and not just in instances of two enemies.  Lovers and friends do the same thing to one another.  It was a way, in a society that prided itself on manners and minding one’s own business, to give the audience a delightful little shock by watching people who were constantly pushing and/or breaking the strict boundaries of said society.

Screenwriter/director Oliver Parker shows remarkable understanding of Oscar Wilde, and a willingness to humble himself before the material.  As mentioned, Wilde’s plays are not quite as cinematic as those of the Bard, and any attempt to make it more so would detract from the dialogue, which is the key attraction.  Parker made his film the correct way…he concentrated on the words and the characters, created a world of beautiful costumes, sets, and art design for them to exist in, and kept the movie rather minimal.  There is very little in the way of gratuitous camera work or trick editing to take away from the pleasure of the words. 

There is, however, a moment when the chief characters are all gathered together at a theatre, and if you’ll pay attention, you’ll notice the play they’re watching is The Importance of Being Earnest.  It’s the kind of funny, narcissistic moment that I believe Mr. Wilde would have taken great delight in.

Video ****

Thankfully, Disney saw fit to make this DVD one of their few and far between anamorphic transfers.  Though I wouldn’t say this disc is as beautiful as Shakespeare in Love (and few are, in my opinion), it still comes very close.  This is an extremely well crafted period piece, with much attention paid to the detail in the coloring, lighting, and art design, particularly the way certain items are used in backgrounds to add extra color or texture.  It will definitely increase your appreciation for a good, attentive transfer.  Images are sharp, crisp and well defined throughout, flesh tones and other colors are rendered beautifully and naturally, with no evidence of bleeding, grain or compression. 

Audio ***

The soundtrack is a 5.1 mix, and is perfectly serviceable, but given the film is dialogue driven and very sparse with sound effects and music, unspectacular by nature.  I noticed hardly any use of the rear channels or the subwoofer during the picture, but then again, I could think of very few places where they might have been used to significant effect.  No real complaints.

Features *

Only a very short production featurette.

Summary:

An Ideal Husband is a funny, entertaining film for those who are able to take pleasure in Wilde’s words and characters, but as mentioned, it’s also the kind of film that might just be lost on those who watch it waiting for something to happen that never does.  For fans of Oscar Wilde or well crafted, well acted period films in general, this beautiful DVD will make a great addition to your library.