Due in large measure to a particularly talented and appealing ensemble of actors, the new screen version of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband is like a leisurely and eminently satisfying stroll through a beautiful meadow. Or, to be more accurate, like a stroll through one of those huge, glassed botanical gardens. For with Wilde we are always examining the natural state of the human species within the artificial constructs of society. The strongest criticism that has been leveled against Oliver Parker's treatment of this gorgeous hothouse cultivar is its occasional whiff of unreality, but in a fundamental sense that's missing the point. The particular brilliance of Oscar Wilde's art derives quite specifically from its refusal to resort to realism, its refusal to equate socially legislated definitions of reality with truth. In his plays, incisive satirical truths about the individual in society emerge, appropriately and memorably, from an environment of extraordinarily manipulated artifice.
At the center of An Ideal Husband -- and its most entertaining figure though not always its primary focus -- is Lord Goring, "the idlest man in London," a character in which, according to Wilde himself, "there's a great deal of the real Oscar, and played in the film by Rupert Everett. His best friend, Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), is blackmailed by a glamorous adventuress, Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore). Sir Robert is a rising star in Parliament and an exemplary husband to intelligent and highly moral Gertrude (Cate Blanchett). Mrs. Cheveley has knowledge of a youthful indiscretion of Sir Robert's which, if disclosed, will ruin not only his career in public life but his ideal marriage.
Wilde achieved stunning popular and critical success as the playwright of his era and was, simultaneously, publicly demonized and imprisoned as an abominable sexual monster. One of the chief delectations of An Ideal Husband, as in all his best plays, is the paradoxical manner in which the playwright develops one of his most famous aphorisms: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple."
Despite the opportunity of getting to utter a number of Wilde's funniest epigrams, Everett, as Lord Goring, gracefully eschews grandstanding. In doing so, he becomes the very essence of the aristocratic dandy -- the quiet, still, handsome, perfectly groomed vortex of attention in any drawing room. Everett's Lord Goring does not exert his charm to get what he wants, he seduces with nonchalant, self-deprecating humor. His little-boy-lost passive aggression is like catnip to everyone (except his unamused father, played by John Wood). Even when Goring becomes something of a hero, it is through an oblique moral choice made almost in spite of himself. Everett does an admirable job, evincing equal measures of the man-about-town's wittily assured public persona, his effete jadedness, egocentrism, and his private hunger for a more direct, self-effacing, human connectedness.
As the elegantly scheming Mrs. Cheveley and the highminded Gertrude, Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett prove again that they are two of the most interesting screen actors working today. They consistently choose projects that require them to broaden and deepen their range and their performances exude intelligence and -- interestingly enough -- both gutsy risk-taking and judicious good taste. In Robert Altman's recent Cookie's Fortune, Moore's portrayal of a rather isolated woman of limited mental capacity was at once well-rounded, touching, and hilarious. Here, as the only American in an impressive British cast, she uses a very light touch and a fine sense of paradox to make Mrs. Cheveley a svelte and smiling late-Victorian villainness. Blanchett does remarkably well with the demanding task of creating a Gertrude who is strong in her own right (she's involved in "women's politics"), passionately in love with her husband, and truly good and upright (without being a prig). As Elizabeth only began to reveal, she's an actor to watch, capable of evincing -- with startlingly intimate directness -- complex powerful emotion, unpredictable subtlety, humor.
The film's most noticeable shortcoming is the role of a young woman whom Goring considers marrying. It is played nicely by Minnie Driver, but as scripted it insufficiently sets up the tale's denouement. The rest of the large cast is composed of fine British character actors. The production design by Michael Howells affords a feast of sumptuously detailed fin de siecle interiors and Caroline Harris' costumes are right at home in them. Parker's unobtrusive direction very wisely allows the excellent cast to determine their own pace -- they quiet obviously know what they're doing in this milieu and are having a good time doing it -- and the cinematography, by David Johnson, strikes just the right note of sly whimsy.