Video Review: An Ideal Husband
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker

A remarkably entertaining costume picture features witty dialogue and underlying truth.

Sometimes movie-going audiences find it difficult to enjoy British “costume pictures.” The time period itself, the stuffy dialogue, and the strict social demands of that particular society often feel out of place in today’s global village. While characterized as a period picture, An Ideal Husband transcends the trappings of dull costume dramas by connecting with us on an emotional level. A few minutes into the film, we fall in love with its characters and become sucked into a remarkably entertaining and well-spun story.

Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), the “last truly decent man in London” and a rising star in Parliament, is an ideal husband who not only loves his wife deeply but is a paragon of impeccable integrity. On the cusp of a government shake-up, all of London murmurs Chiltern’s name for advancement. His wife, Lady Gertrude (Cate Blanchett) involves herself in women’s politics and holds honesty just as highly has does her husband. Together they represent the best in English public life.

Into this scenario arrives the sinister Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore). Having invested heavily in a construction scheme, she has come to London to see that the British Parliament support it. And to do so, she must gain the favor of Sir Robert. He refuses to support this “swindle,” but Mrs. Cheveley will have her way: She blackmails him. She possesses evidence of a single indiscretion in Sir Robert’s past that will surely destroy his reputation and his career-not to mention the devotion of his beloved wife. During the ordeal, Chiltern turns to his long-time friend Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett), an idle dandy, who becomes the focal point of the entire affair.

Like so many other plays by Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband comically exploits human weakness and the virtues of love and integrity despite those weaknesses. The production design and locations are stunning and the costumes are brilliant and sharp, but the elements worthy of the highest praise include the writing, featuring Wilde’s witty repartee, and the performances by an ideal ensemble cast.

Rupert Everett (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) and Julianne Moore (“Nine Months”) present break-out performances here which earned them both Golden Globe Nominations. In contrast to Sir Robert, Lord Goring prides himself on being “the idlest man in London” who makes it a point to be perfectly frivolous. Everett skillfully juggles the several layers of Goring’s public and private persona. Julianne Moore, though chillingly wicked and unlovable, brings humanity and emotion to her character and is surprisingly convincing as a Brit. Rounding out a wonderful cast include Jeremy Northam (“The Winslow Boy”), Minnie Driver, and Cate Blanchett who all turn out enjoyable and believable performances.

Oliver Parker, the director as well as the one who adapted the play for the screen, skillfully balances the humor and the drama. The plot twists so common to comedy delight us and just as readily turn us to the more grave emotions of sorrow or regret. This unusual story really possesses two climaxes-a daring cinematic structure. And what’s even more risky, is that Wilde and Parker play the first one as the more emotionally weighty, dramatic climax. They reserve the second one for the comedy-of-errors conclusion. While this can make the film feel long, it reveals some important things about both the theme as well as the story. The structure tells us that this story is only partly about Sir Chiltern, and mostly about Lord Goring. He is the ideal husband; he is the man of the day; he is the hero of this tale.

Such a conclusion might disturb a casual viewer. This man, who has very little commitment to the world or others, who revels in frivolity, who thumbs his nose at things others deem important, this man is the film’s hero? There is a simple thematic reason for this-and a very good moral reason for it as well. The answer lies in what Mabel Chiltern says: “To look at a thing is quite different from seeing it.” She continues that to truly see something is to see it’s beauty. She teaches him that to accept someone is synonymous to giving that person your love. There are no conditions attached.

While the moralists in the film wish Lord Goring to be more devoted to the traditional virtues, he proves to have as much integrity as Sir Chiltern himself. He, just like Chiltern, puts his whole life on the altar of sacrifice to stand by his belief and see right done. He understands that “love can’t be bought, it can only be given”-and finally acts on that principle.

Beyond the well-told story, Ideal conveys some truths about life. And as is so often the case, the character with the most sinister designs usually tells some of the most poignant truths. Mrs. Cheveley points out to Sir Robert that “at some point we all have to pay for what we do.” Indeed, “it is the game of life that we all have to play sooner or later.” While she intends to make Robert pay dearly for his past, she correctly states that he is “not rich enough to buy back [his] past. No man is.”

If that were the message and conclusion of Ideal, we would rightly consider it a tragedy of Grecian proportions. But, Cheveley chooses not to point out other truths. While people are fallible, life affords us the opportunity to gain forgiveness. Single sins do not dictate who we are or can become unless they become the trend. Every person must lift him or herself from the soiled experiences of mistakes and become and remain improved. And when each of us recognizes our own fallibility, we will understand how and why we must forgive others of their weaknesses.

An Ideal Husband is not a diatribe or even a heavy “message” film. This satisfying film will incite you to laughter and lift your spirits. You will be glad you discovered this one.

 


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.