by Cathleen Myers
We were really looking forward to the new Miramax production of Oscar Wilde’s wonderful play An Ideal Husband (scripted and directed by Oliver Parker). What could possibly go wrong? Parker had both a competent British/American cast and a dream script to work with: a suspenseful, hilariously funny, and ironically relevant political comedy-thriller with an impossibly sexy hero (Wilde’s own persona, Lord Goring, "The world’s first well-dressed philosopher" well-played by Rupert Everett). An Ideal Husband is perfect material for a great costume picture: Set in one of the most gorgeous fashion years - 1895 - it gives all sorts of opportunities for Miramax to do what it does so well - gorgeous costumes and corsets, stunning period sets, and elegant ambience. (even the china is genuine Wedgewood!).
Wilde’s tightly plotted story might have been written for our times: His protagonist is a brilliant and popular young Liberal MP (Jeremy Northam) whose political career and marriage are jeopardized when a blackmailer threatens to expose a guilty secret from his past - involving both insider trading and betrayal of a Cabinet secret. Juicy, eh? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Unfortunately, Parker manages to turn a four star comedy-drama into a three star costume flick. Parker not only rewrote a substantial amount of the dialogue - though he doesn’t really have a good grasp of Victorian speech patterns - but changed some major plot points in a vain attempt to humanize the villainous Mrs. Cheveley’s character. This seems to be an unfortunate trend in modern film adaptations of The Classics. The magnificently plotted shown-down between Lord Goring and the fascinating blackmailer is utterly ruined by Parker’s absurdly re-written screenplay, which turns the bracelet scene into a Dangerous Liaisons wager totally out of character for both Goring and Mrs. C, who are, after all, supposed to be intelligent..
We certainly understand that Parker needed to trim some of Oscar Wilde’s dialogue in order to keep the film’s running time under 2 hours, but his own dialogue is not nearly as witty as Oscar’s and is not very "period." While most of his mistakes are trivial, they are nonetheless annoying: Lady Chiltern (a mere knight’s wife) is incorrectly referred to as "Lady Gertrude"; the awesomely aristocratic Earl of Caversham addresses his son’s valet as "sir" (huh?), while the valet calls Lord Goring "sir" until it finally occurs to Parker that the correct form of address is "my lord." Nearly everyone else in the film is on a chummy first name basis, as if this were the 1990’s, not the 1890’s. Nor does Parker understand period customs: He has Mabel Chiltern going out on unchaperoned evening "dates" - hardly something even a liberated young English lady like Mabel would do! And casting Minnie Driver as Mabel causes a logical mishap in the final scene of the film: Ms. Driver is a brave actress (as her performance in "South Park" proves!) but she is quite a few years over 21 - and, if Mabel is over 21, she does not need her guardian’s consent to marry.
Although we are told several times that the film is set in 1895, not even the costumes are 1895. While men’s tailoring is handsome enough, almost none of the women are in 1895 fashions; both the afternoon frocks and the evening/reception gowns look early Edwardian. No one is wearing leg-o-mutton sleeves (which is sort of like trying to do a film set in the 1990’s without lap tops and cell phones!); liberated Lady Chiltern (Cate Blanchett in a lovely performance) is shown walking her bicycle along but is wearing a straight skirt she couldn’t possible cycle in; and none the corsets are sufficiently fitted.
We could understand the feminist Lady Chiltern and the rebellious Mabel Chiltern refusing to tight-lace but the dangerous and ultra-fashionable Mrs. Cheveley should be as tight-laced as Morticia Addams. Mrs. Cheveley’s climactic gold Edwardian gown is lovely but not nearly tight enough nor especially decolleté and does not set off Julianna Moore’s assets very well. On the other hand, the ingenue Mabel wears a sophisticated red satin gown completely inappropriate for a debutante.
In short, An Ideal Husband is not a bad film. Just a disappointing adaptation of an amazingly effective play!
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