Oscar Wilde’s 104-year-old legiter about emotional and political chicanery shines like a freshly minted coin in Oliver Parker’s adaptation of “An Ideal Husband.” Smooth-flowing direction, a shrewdly pruned script and a top-flight ensemble cast that visibly relishes both the dialogue and one another’s perfs make this a tony item for upscale, mature audiences looking for some intelligent relief beyond summertime eye candy. Pic, which opened April 16 in London, is set to close the Cannes fest and open Stateside through Miramax June 26.
Peter Hall’s long-running ’90s revival, which played both London and New York, discovered a new audience for Wilde’s 1895 comedy, which for long labored under the giant shadows of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” as well as being stuck with the tag of having a dramatically problematic fourth act. Actor-turned-director Parker hasn’t quite solved the latter but in general has come up with a real piece of cinema that opens up the original’s drawing-room settings in an unforced way and has far more panache and helming style than his iffy debut, “Othello.” Such is the up-to-date appeal of the play that a contempo version — directed by Bill Cartlidge, starring Sadie Frost and James Wilby, and shot in the U.K. — is also in the can.
Parker and his thesps go for an accessible, only slightly stylized manner that’s far less exaggerated than Alexander Korda’s lavish, highly theatrical 1947 version, despite being equally strongly cast for its time. Most modern about the present item is that all the characters finally emerge as sympathetic, rather than being simply brittle constructs; and most welcome is the fact that the pic studiously avoids condescending to the characters in a knowing contempo way or playing up the piece’s gay allegory in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink manner. It’s simply a wonderfully tooled slice of intelligent entertainment, with some of the author’s most famous Wilde-isms (“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance,” etc.) reshaped into a period romantic comedy.
Opening sets the style, with Charlie Mole’s mellifluous score, d.p. David Johnson’s rich, clean lensing and Guy Bensley’s smooth cutting drawing the viewer in as the main characters are sketched, out and about in London, prior to their congregation at the society party at the home of rising young politician Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam). With the dramatis personae already introduced, Parker is free to mingle the viewer amongst them as we observe Chiltern’s adoring wife, Gertrud (Cate Blanchett), herself into femme politics; his younger sister, Mabel (Minnie Driver); resolute bachelor and “the idlest man in London,” Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett, in the Wilde role); his stuffy father (John Wood); society figure Lady Markby (Lindsay Duncan); and, fresh in from Vienna, her ultra-poised friend Mrs. Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore).
Gertrud visibly bristles at Laura’s appearance: The two were at school together and she never trusted her. With hardly a pause, Laura whisks Robert off to a drawing room and calmly blackmails the politico into supporting a dodgy scheme (something about an Argentine canal project) in Parliament so she doesn’t lose her sizable stock-market investment. Laura has an incriminating document about a youthful “indiscretion” by Robert — leaking a government document about the Suez Canal that made a bundle for one of her previous husbands (Jeroen Krabbe, in a flashback cameo).
A cynical social butterfly to his fingertips, Arthur is drawn into helping his old friend Robert, who asks him to prepare the ground with Gertrud should he decide to capitulate to Laura’s machinations. As he has already made clear his opposition to the Argentine scheme, Robert knows he would lose his wife along with his career if he suddenly altered his stance.
Thereon, the complications and misunderstandings mount, as most of the leading characters separately arrive at Arthur’s residence one evening. Suddenly Arthur, who boasts that “I only talk seriously on the first Tuesday of each month … between noon and three,” is forced to get involved in his friends’ lives.
Textual purists may decry some of the changes Parker has made to the original — which include eliminating the joke Frenchman, Vicomte de Nanjac, and setting one sequence at the premiere of Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” complete with the playwright (Michael Culkin) making his famous post-curtain speech — but the truth is that such changes, and the elimination of period refs and jokes, work for the movie. Pic creates a believable London society of 1895, one that exists beyond the drawing-room parameters of the play, and both Michael Howells’ production design and Caroline Harris’ detailed but understated costumes continually complement and comment on the characters and their personalities.
Result is a slightly exaggerated but believable milieu in which Wilde’s people emerge as flawed heroes and heroines rather than just witty cynics. Add to that Mole’s alert scoring, the pic’s richly textured look (which moves from light to dark to light again) and a superb lineup of thesps, and all the ingredients are there for an involving comedy of manners. Though the film still dips in the resolution-heavy last act, with Parker not quite negotiating its changes in tone, he at least manages to end on a buoyant note that caps things in a thoroughly satisfying, upbeat, bigscreen way.
Performances are tiptop down the line, with Everett immaculately poised as the Wilde alter ego; Moore as the unflappable, scheming Laura; Blanchett making a real character out of the adoring but strong Gertrud; and Driver bringing a slightly ditzy charm to the love-struck Mabel. Northam may not be everyone’s idea of Robert, but his softer, more human portrayal fits the movie. Smaller roles, like Peter Vaughan’s long-suffering butler and Duncan’s immaculate society lady, are equally well cast, and both Aussie Blanchett and Yank Moore’s English accents are natural and impeccable.