A movie can be too `Ideal'

Review: The adaptation of Oscar Wilde's comedy of manners is too tame.

June 25, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Taste is a tricky thing when it comes to movies. Too little, and you get a lot of exploitative junk; too much, and you get, well, "An Ideal Husband," a movie so self-satisfied that what should be a lively and trenchant cautionary tale comes off as annoyingly precious.

It's not that "An Ideal Husband" commits any unforgivable sin. It doesn't play too fast and loose with Oscar Wilde's comedy of manners, from which it has been adapted, setting it on a space station, say, or making it a vehicle for the cast of "Dawson's Creek."

No, "An Ideal Husband" is every inch the faithful translation, a perfectly ambered slice of late Victorian English life that buzzes with the tinkling of fine china and archly delivered epigrams. The production is opulent, the costumes are splendid and the performances range from passable to quite good.

The problem is the emotional tone, which strikes the knowing pitch of Wilde at his most cutting but never goes much deeper. This makes for an attractive and mildly amusing movie but not a terribly absorbing one.

Rupert Everett plays Lord Arthur Goring, who in the late 1890s is one of London's most eligible -- and feckless -- bachelors. Goring's best friend is Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), a wealthy and promising statesman whose stunning wife, Lady Chiltern (Cate Blanchett), is the perfect helpmate on his rise to political stardom. But their meteoric career is interrupted one day by the arrival of Mrs. Chevely (Julianne Moore), an old school chum of Lady Chiltern's and an adventuress who has designs on Sir Robert's fortune.

She possesses a certain letter shedding light on his rather unsavory past. And this being London, this being the 19th century and this being Wilde, Mrs. Chevely's missive will set in motion a flurry of misunderstandings, misplaced affections and, of course, more letters. Director Oliver Parker, who also adapted the screenplay of "An Ideal Husband," has opened up the play with obvious care, making sure to dress his sets and his women with the opulence and rectitude of the era.

One can hardly quibble with his casting, especially Everett and Moore, who prowl through their cat-and-mouse game with grace and subtle wit. And is there a film-goer alive who doesn't want to spend a couple of hours watching Blanchett being her own exquisite self? (The only clanging note is struck by Minnie Driver's Mabel, whose relationship to Lord Goring is never fleshed out enough to make her pursuit of him believable.)

But by the time the convoluted story of ambition and passion resolves itself in the tidiest of endings, its air of waxed-fruit perfection has become almost too much to bear, and the actors' game banter begins to grate. No doubt the filmmakers thought Wilde's parable of political careerism, hypocrisy and forgiveness would strike a humorously topical note today, but the connection seems forced in a way that Wilde would never have countenanced.

At the risk of being struck down by a bolt of lightning, maybe the "Dawson's Creek" approach wouldn't have been such a bad idea after all.

`An Ideal Husband'

Starring Rupert Everett, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Minnie Driver, Jeremy Northam

Directed by Oliver Parker

Released by Miramax Films

Rated PG-13 (brief sensuality/nudity)

Running time: 118 minutes

Sun score: **

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