Ideal Husband, An (United Kingdom/United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

An Ideal Husband is a delightful parfait - an irresistible concoction of brilliant dialogue, sumptuous set design, top-notch acting, and a plot littered with Machiavellian twists. Possessing a light tone tinged with an acerbic accent, An Ideal Husband represents about the best that the motion picture industry can offer. It's an exquisitely crafted movie that can be appreciated from start to finish. Writer/director Oliver Parker (who last reached the screen with his 1996 adaptation of Othello) has taken Oscar Wilde's play and tweaked it in such a way that the playwright's best lines remain intact while the setting has been opened up to offer a fresh perspective.

Those who are comfortable with Wilde's peerless composition of the English language will be thrilled by the way Parker has chosen to use the original text. Those unfamiliar with Wilde will marvel at the screenplay's ability to keep the dialogue at such a high level for 90 minutes. When it comes to characters trading quips, pregnant phrases, and double entendres, there hasn't been a better movie all year. Of course, it's not all in the written word. An Ideal Husband has an ideal cast. They're able to take the lines and make them their own. There isn't a weak performance - even the supporting players are perfectly suited for their roles. The worst thing I can say about any of the actors is that Julianne Moore's British accent seems a trifle forced and inconsistent.

The film begins by taking us to England at the end of the 19th century. There, we are introduced to Lord Arthur Goring, played with panache by the underrated Rupert Everett, who deserved (but did not get) an Oscar nomination for My Best Friend's Wedding, and is equally worthy of Academy recognition here. (He can also be seen in 1999's A Midsummer Night's Dream.) Goring is described by friends as "the idlest man in London"; his favorite pastimes are engaging in slothful activities, flirting with Mabel Chiltern (Minnie Driver), the only woman who can match him word-for-word in a duel of wits, and avoiding being pushed into marriage by his stodgy father, the Earl of Caversham (John Wood). He rigorously avoids discussing serious subjects, asserting that "I love talking about nothing. It's the only thing I know anything about."

Lord Goring's closest friends are Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) and his wife, Lady Gertrude (Cate Blanchett). Robert is an upright man of impeccable reputation and his wife, an independent-minded woman, is devoted to him. Several days before Robert is to speak before Parliament to denounce potential British support for an act to cut a canal through Argentina, he is approached by the devious Mrs. Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore), who has just returned to London from Vienna. She offers him money to support the canal, and when he refuses, she comments that every man has his price. Her next action is to blackmail him - unless he capitulates, she will ruin his career and wreck his marriage by revealing the secret of how he acquired his wealth.

The plot has all the twists and turns of a David Mamet effort, yet remains surprisingly easy to follow. And it's a good thing, because unnecessary concentration on the mechanics of the story would take away from our ability to savor Wilde's dialogue, which never flags. Although the film's tone is primarily playful, there are serious moments, and it's during these that we gain genuine insight into the characters. Actually, some of the best interaction has less to do with words than with actions. On more than one occasion, the eye contact between Minnie Driver's Mabel and Rupert Everett's Lord Goring speaks volumes. Driver's expressive face is used to its best advantage by Parker, who capitalizes on each of his actors' strengths. Cate Blanchett, who, like Kate Winslet, is quickly becoming known for period pieces, is perfectly at home as Gertrude, a woman whose morals are beyond reproach.

There are numerous delectable small moments in An Ideal Husband, chief of which are the brief exchanges between Lord Goring and his manservant, Phipps (Peter Vaughan). Some of the most astute and penetrating snippets of dialogue come during these conversations (which generally consist of Goring speaking and Phipps nodding his head). Then there's a scene with Driver in a red dress standing at the top of a staircase, resembling none other than Audrey Hepburn. The likeness, although brief, is so uncanny that it can't be accidental.

Story-wise, the movie covers a great deal of ground, crossing a treacherous minefield of politics, blackmail, betrayal, mistaken identities, and romance. Like nearly everything written by Wilde, An Ideal Husband contains a fair share of barbed social commentary. Some of the movie's better lines: "In the old days, we had the rack. Now we have the press." "Scandals used to lend charm or interest to a man. Nowadays, they crush him." And "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance."

These days, with flashy action/adventure films and big budget science fiction flicks claiming the lion's share of the box office, it's easy to forget the simple, undeniable pleasure of watching a movie like An Ideal Husband, where dialogue, performances, and story construction combine to perfect the experience. The public consumes blockbusters like snack foods - gobbling them down with little concern for quality. An Ideal Husband, on the other hand, is meant to be savored and perhaps sampled a second time simply to absorb all the ingenious quirks that are missed during the first opportunity. This is one of 1999's least-publicized cinematic treasures.

Ideal Husband, An (United Kingdom/United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 1999-06-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1