Film Review: An Ideal Husband (1999)

“Sooner or later, we shall all have to pay for what we do”

Oliver Parker’s first Wilde adaptation was this 1999 film of An Ideal Husband, with Rupert Everett leading the cast as Lord Goring. What is remarkable now though is the casting of both Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore who now boast nearly 10 Academy Award nominations (and 1 win) between them so this proves a great opportunity to catch them both just at the point where their careers were going stratospheric.

Sir Robert Chiltern’s security as a politician and respected gentleman comes under threat when the devilish Mrs Cheveley, a school-time enemy of his wife Lady Gertrude, attempts to blackmail him into voting a particular way in Parliament as she has evidence of past misdoings. He turns to his friend and eternal bachelor Lord Goring for assistance, who is currently avoiding the keen attentions of Robert’s sister Mabel, as he was previously engaged to Mrs Cheveley but the plot to extricate him has unintended consequences.

Despite having seen the play before on the West End, I don’t really remember much about it at all. Thus I can’t really comment on how this works as an adaptation, but to these fresh(ish) eyes it has a fair amount of, if not quite enough, of the Wildean sparkle and wit that one would expect. Parker has a keen sense of the hypocrisy at this level of society, where language can be as vicious at it wants as long as it is wrapped in the veneer of ‘good’ behaviour, Moore excelling at this duality of concealing the most cruelly barbed of tongues under an innocuous appearance. And she is well contrasted by Blanchett’s paragon of virtue Gertrude, whose expectations of extreme perfect morality are just unsustainable. Everett’s bounder Goring and Jeremy Northam as Chiltern represent well for the men, and so the acting is strong throughout.

But the pacing of the film feels a little too languid, a little too laidback for the farcical goings-on that lie at the heart of the story. There’s not quite the crispness to keep the humour as sharp as it could be, and so when the film begins to sags, as it does on a couple of occasions, one notices it more than one should. There is much that is cleverly done in here though, and Parker layers in plenty of meta-textual references which ought to keep even the most ardent of Wilde fans busy trying to spot them all. 

One of the best thesp-spotting opportunities, yet also the most frustrating, is when the action moves to the theatre as the characters take in a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest. We see precious little of the show and this seems unnecessarily cruel as it has a cast which includes Nancy Carroll, Charles Edwards and Janet Henfrey – that is a production I would pay good money to see. Lindsay Duncan and Simon Russell Beale also pop up elsewhere to provide a bit of class to proceedings and the film is entertaining enough to merit a decent recommendation.

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