An Ideal Husband

on June 18, 1999 by Wade Major
That the centennial resurgence of interest in the life and works of Oscar Wilde should engender not one but two screen adaptations of the play "An Ideal Husband" in the same year would be cause for celebration if it didn't also speak volumes about the dearth of good contemporary writing. Thankfully, the higher profile of the two projects--a traditional telling from writer/director Oliver Parker ("Othello")--is good enough on its own to erase any such regrets, perhaps even paving a way for a future release of the concurrently-filmed contemporized version starring James Wilby and Sadie Frost.
One of Wilde's most ingeniously orchestrated drawing room comedies (filmed several times previously, including a 1947 version by Alexander Korda), the tenebrous farce set among the London aristocracy of the 1890s receives a breezy treatment from Parker and his all-star cast that should exhilarate and enthrall Wilde novices and devotees alike. The chain of events begins when youthful indiscretions return to haunt Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), courtesy of seductive blackmailer Mrs. Chevely (Julianne Moore). Less fearful of losing his social status than jeopardizing his marriage to loving wife Gertrude (Cate Blanchett), Chiltern turns for help to his friend Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett), a carefree playboy with a special knack for indiscretions and knowing how to deal with them. What Chiltern doesn't know is that Goring has a history with Mrs. Chevely that predates his own, information which Goring isn't especially eager to share so long as Robert's sassily irrepressible sister Mabel (Minnie Driver) has her sights on him.
While it would have been easy to simply rely on the strength of Wilde's writing to carry the project, Parker and his cast never give any less than their very best, seizing on the play's multi-layered emotional texture to make for a richer and infinitely more satisfying film experience. Supporting technical contributions are appropriately glowing yet not ostentatious, lending spirit to the proceedings without distracting from the writing or the performances.
At once funny and romantic, heart-breaking and gloriously nerve-wracking, "An Ideal Husband" adds yet another first-rate plume to the Miramax chapeau, insuring another rousing awards season come year-end. Starring Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore and Jeremy Northam. Directed and written by Oliver Parker. Produced by Barnaby Thompson, Uri Fruchtmann and Bruce Davey. A Miramax release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for brief sensuality/nudity. Running time: 96 min.
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