An Ideal Husband
Even second-rate Oscar Wilde is better than most other people's best, and although "An Ideal Husband" is not the very best Wilde, where else would you hear this dialogue between a man and his former fiancée, whom he now despises:
She: Are you not even a little bit pleased to see me?
He: Possibly even less than that.
Wilde's genius was that he could assume you'd enjoy hearing that interchange played out before you, you'd recognize the brilliance of its construction, you'd smile to yourself, and then go on to wait for the next moment. He didn't write laugh lines, and he didn't need a laugh track. In his plays, wit -- as opposed to jokes -- trumped all.
Oliver Parker's new film of the play, admittedly working with second-rate Wilde, tries to manufacture jokes where wit is called for, and inserts gratuitous moments of fear and heroism where civility is needed. In fact Parker, who wrote the screenplay as well as directing, has changed the ending so that Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), who's been the victim of a blackmail attempt by the evil seductress Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore), must now stand up in Parliament in a scene created out of whole cloth by Parker -- a steal from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" -- and speak for truth, justice, and the British way of whatever. Wilde's original ending, with Mrs. Cheveley hoist by her own petard, would have worked much better.
The play itself, written and set in the 1890s, is charming, if not profound. Sir Robert, the ideal husband to his wife Gertrude (Cate Blanchett) is a rising star in the government. His best friend, Lord Goring (Rupert Everett) is a committed bachelor, pursued by Robert's sister Mabel (Minnie Driver). Along comes Mrs. Cheveley, the worm in the apple. She wants Sir Robert to speak in Parliament in favor of a dubious Argentine scheme, which if supported by the government will mean great riches for her. If he refuses, she will release a letter from years before in which he confesses to receiving a bribe for lying about another matter -- the bribe money being the foundation of his present wealth.
Wilde plays with the dilemma like a cat with a mouse, dangling it before us, moving on temporarily to other business (will Driver capture Everett?), then coming back to it again. Everett, as Goring, is the voice of both wit and wisdom here, which is unfortunate on two counts: first, that we don't get to see quite enough of him, or hear enough of his mots juste; and second, that Everett -- whose line I've quoted above -- plays against the character, tending to throw away everything that hints of aphorism, reducing those marvelous moments -- highlights on stage -- to a low monotone on film. Moreover, Parker's staging often fights the material, I suppose in an attempt to be more au courant stylistically. Instead of accepting the stagy theatricality of the lines, he tries to counter it by framing and choreographing his scenes with an edginess that only diminishes the impact of the dialogue.
Nonetheless, on the theory that any Wilde is better than no Wilde, there's much to enjoy here. The character of Lord Goring is delicious enough to stand out no matter who plays him, and Everett reads his lines with, if not power, at least pleasure. Cate Blanchett, in a thankless role, is the ideal wife, adding sensuality to a character written without it. Jeremy Northam, as Sir Robert, is cast against looks -- he looks like the butcher's son -- but pulls through even the Parliamentary epiphany without losing too much credibility. A nice surprise is Julianne Moore (of "Cookie's Fortune" and "Boogie Nights") as Mrs. Cheveley. She is perfectly wicked, her North Carolina accent is nicely masked by a decent British one, and she carries herself with the necessary strength to play what she is here, the engine of the plot. Now, on to "The Importance of Being Earnest."