Woe to the scribe who presumes to rewrite a master -- unless he is so deft that his invasion of privacy produces something new and exciting. Enter British writer-director Oliver Parker. He has the nerve to meddle with Oscar Wilde's sublime farce An Ideal Husband and the skill to pull it off. A tweedy drama professor or two may protest, but the political, social, and linguistic adjustments Parker makes to this hugely entertaining Husband give it fresh relevance without betraying the original. The arch conceits and gaudy effects of a satire written more than a century ago have been muted, but Wilde's glorious sting remains.
This is, as ever, the tangled tale of one Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), a rising MP whose spotless reputation conceals a grave error of youth: Years before, he sold a state secret, which led to his wealth and power. Now a ruthless adventuress, Mrs. Cheveley (Boogie Nights' Julianne Moore), threatens to expose him in the press, ruin his marriage, and wreck his career. Thus do blackmail and scandal begin to boil. Need we look any further than the recent low chicaneries at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to affirm Wilde's timeless grasp of the human comedy?
Fortunately, the tormented playwright's dramatis personae, major and minor, are a lot more interesting than their current counterparts -- and the great cast of American and British actors who play them are more convincing. For a start, behold Northam's beleaguered Chiltern. A social paradigm, he nonetheless embodies Wilde's conviction that ideals are unattainable and that even the best among us is tainted by sin. This truth may escape Chiltern's loving but puritanical wife, Gertrude (Cate Blanchett, who here sheds her crown), just as it escapes Kenneth Starr. But the real hero of the piece, Sir Robert's friend Arthur Goring (suave Rupert Everett), embraces it for all he's worth.
On the surface, this decadent playboy appears to be feckless, self-absorbed, and empty-headed, which prompts a choice Wilde aphorism: "I love talking about nothing," Lord Goring says. "It's the only thing I know anything about." But as the play ventures into the single-mindedness of greed and the value of loyalty (have a look -- see, Linda Tripp and George Stephanopoulos), Goring proves to be a true friend and a real saint -- albeit one who stays out all night and sleeps late.
Here is the Wildean dichotomy writ large -- the witty Mrs. Cheveley's relentless conniving vs. the witty Lord Goring's refusal to take himself or the manners of society seriously. Wilde will always be known best for savaging hypocrisy, but An Ideal Husband continues to reveal his gentler side. By the end, the Chilterns and the Gorings-to-be find themselves awash in a tenderness we don't ordinarily associate with Wilde's rapier wit.
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In 1995, director Parker put Othello (in the person of Laurence Fishburne) on a kind of verbal diet, and his condensed version of the great tragedy drew mixed reviews. With Wilde, Parker seems to advance the playwright's best ideas and most dazzling language while reinventing the play for the dawn of the 21st century. The crooked old baron (Jeroen Krabbé) who launches Sir Robert Chiltern's career now informs him that "information is the modern commodity." And while Julianne Moore's surpassing Mrs. Cheveley is the picture of Victorian cunning, her duplicity takes on a keen contemporary edge, thanks to some sly fiddlings with language and style.
Still, Parker reproduces a bygone London of starched shirtfronts, purloined letters, and elaborate deceptions in the kind of loving detail period-movie audiences crave -- and have gotten used to from Merchant-Ivory epics. In honor of his inspiration, Parker stages a snippet of The Importance of Being Earnest, complete with a curtain call featuring Wilde himself (Michael Culkin); and while attending a glittering ball, we can't help overhearing the announcement of one "Lord Windemere." Nice details, both.
The minor characters are also splendid -- from the Chilterns' absent-minded butler, Phipps (Peter Vaughan), to Lord Goring's disapproving father, Lord Caversham (John Wood), to Minnie Driver's plucky Miss Mabel (Sir Robert's sister now, not his daughter), who would make of the unruly Lord Goring her own kind of ideal husband. They, too, stand and serve Wilde's notions that only comic spirit can purge vanity and that, as he said elsewhere, "Truth is never pure, and rarely simple."
An Ideal Husband should be required viewing for Bill and Monica, both houses of Congress, and the citizenry at large. Failing that, let's regard it as a modest yet welcome antidote to the crash-bang summer blockbusters. Even for Wilde literalists, it's a buoyant refurbishment of a classic that keeps you in stitches while reminding you what it means to be human.