An Ideal Husband (1999)
Directed by Oliver Parker
Cast: Rupert Everett, Jeremy Northam, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, John Wood, Jeroen Krabbe, Lindsay Duncan, Peter Vaughan.
1999 97 minutes
Rated: (for mild sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 6, 1999.
Period movies set south of 1940 rarely ever interest me. Most of them seem very similar, with lots of fancy costumes and characters who always say one thing but mean another, or don't even say something to begin with. Some certainly work (Martin Scorcese's ravishing 1993 drama, "The Age of Innocence" and 1998's Best Picture Oscar winner, "Shakespeare in Love"), but most of them end with me more often than not saying to myself, "so what?"
Leave it up to director Oliver Parker's "An Ideal Husband," based loosely on famed 19th-century writer Oscar Wilde's play, to prove that all a period film needs to jump vibrantly to life is a remarkable cast. This picture sure has lucked out with this group of actors, who make up one of the most flawless and talented ensembles I've seen at the movies in a long time. Luckily, the screenplay, adapted by Parker, has also translated Wilde's token charm and wit to the screen successfully, even if the particulars of the story have been slightly altered.
Set in England, circa the 1890's, the prominently wealthy politician (Jeremy Northam) is paid an unwelcome visit by Lady Cheveley (Julianne Moore), visiting for a week from Vienna, who reveals that she has obtained a letter that reveals the untruthful way in which he got his large sum of money: he once passed on key information to a German count concerning the Suez Canal. Not only would this info, if it were to get out, destroy Sir Robert, but it would also devastate his lovely wife, Lady Chiltern (Cate Blanchett), who believes she is married to a completely honest man. An ultimatum is given by Lady Cheveley, however: if he will endorse a highly controversial upcoming waterway project in Argentina, she will give him back the letter. Coming to his aid is Sir Robert's best friend, Lord Goring (Rupert Everett), a self-involved, but alluring 36-year-old man whom has an admirer in Robert's younger sister, Mabel (Minnie Driver), and who, secretly, was once engaged to the scheming Lady Cheveley.
The complicated premise of "An Ideal Husband" might have been needlessly daunting for such a lightweight comedy, but somehow it never once becomes confusing, as we instantly are absorbed into this group of characters' lives and relationships. And every character, by the way, is genuinely fascinating and likable, even the "bad girl" of the piece, Lady Cheveley. At first playing as simply the catalyst that spins the plot into motion, Cheveley could have easily become the stock villain in the film, but is eventually revealed to possibly have a warmer heart than we first may have anticipated. The always-radiant Julianne Moore doesn't miss even the most subtle nuance throughout, obviously having a lot of fun with her character. Moore certainly had a difficult task of turning Lady Cheveley into someone who wasn't wholly despicable, but amazingly, she never is.
The main character in the film, Lord Goring, who seemingly doesn't have much to do with the predicament at hand but somehow becomes more deeply embroiled in the conflict than anyone else, is played to the classy, eloquent hilt by Rupert Everett, a wonderful talent who deserves more richly textured roles like the one he has in this film. Playfully showing off his own infatuation for himself, Goring says in the scene in which we first meet him, "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance." Even when Goring is saying such conceited things, none of the characters can do anything but be swept off their feet by him, even though that never is his true intention.
After her Oscar-nominated role in 1998's Elizabeth" (which was the only saving grace of that mediocre film) and her truly diverse turn in last spring's "Pushing Tin," Cate Blanchett is quickly becoming one of our biggest, freshest talents. Her Lady Chiltern clearly cares for her husband (also well-played by Northam), but sometimes evidence comes before us that questions just what she loves about him. Does she really love the real him, or is she enamored more by the thought of his perfect innocence and idealism? Aside from the hidden complexities of her character, Blanchett also is given ample chance to show offer her comic talents, and is particularly funny, especially in a late scene in which she herself must hide something from her husband.
Finally, Minnie Driver is glorious as usual, looking more like Minnie Mouse than usual. This isn't an insult, believe me, but merely an observation of her unique, but certain, beauty. Driver, at first, is asked to do nothing more than give admiring glances toward Lord Goring, but instantly comes into her own despite this, and is especially given more substantial things to do in the last half-hour.
Entertaining is the perfect adjective to describe "An Ideal Husband." Since the story and, subsequently, the winning screenplay are cleverly designed and written, and the actors demonstrate such a delight in their respective performances, the film breaks out of the usual mold of "period movies" to become a picture that, more or less, could be set in any decade of any century. Aside from there being at least two or three false endings too many that left me getting ready to see the end credits only to have another plot development form, "An Ideal Husband" is an absolute joy from start to finish. In a summer filled with many flashier, bigger, and more brainless films, this is one to seek out.
©1999 by Dustin Putman