As We Like It?

Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband is wed to the current lust for what's old

In Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes's homage to glam rock, the Oscar Wilde quotations came so quick and dense that this viewer often felt choked with words: desperately trying to swallow their spirit and spit out the surface (or vice versa?), and finding myself increasingly, blissfully flummoxed. An Ideal Husband, Oliver Parker's adaptation of an 1895 Wilde play, doesn't demand such happy labor from the audience. These Wilde witticisms, while still thickly clever, are styled to go down easy. It doesn't hurt that they're uttered by characters imagined by Wilde, costumed in Victorian attire, and enlivened by delightful actors with a coherent understanding of what the work should mean.

The pleasures of An Ideal Husband are undeniably less intense for this craven accessibility (true love, as Wilde points out here, requires courage and risk-taking). Still, they are pleasures. And as Parker's dialogue-rich film leaves most romantic comedies of the day--up to and including Notting Hill and Pushing Tin--looking like crude, pratfall-filled burlesques, we must appreciate the pleasure of its relative subtlety. That's the thing about romantic screenplays based on the work of old, dead white guys: The repartee tends to jump and jangle more than in scripts by variously aged and colored guys and gals who are still living. As much as Shakespeare in Love, An Ideal Husband revels in the beauty of the finely turned phrase.

And especially (per Wilde) the beauty of the fine-tuned insult. The movie is being advertised as the story of a bachelor chased by would-be wives, but this setup, fortunately, remains a subplot. The core of the film concerns a husband and wife: the up-and-coming politician Sir Robert (Jeremy Northam); and the suffragette Gertrude (Cate Blanchett), who has idealistic notions of her mate and her marriage. Then a foreign woman comes to London with a secret. Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore), school enemy to Gertrude and former fiancée to Gertrude's friend Lord Goring (Rupert Everett), has discovered a sordid scandal in Sir Robert's past. She soon sets to extorting and blackmailing, and civilized incivilities start flying about like sharp silver steak knives.

These developments obviously bear some resemblance to recent events. It must be said, however, that while President Clinton and Monika Lewinsky appeared united in their attempts to degrade language, An Ideal Husband locates moral redemption in verbal clarity: "I lied," as one character grinds out breathlessly. You should not assume, though, that the film likewise champions moral exactness. In Wilde and Parker's view, clear language is the route to fathoming and forgiving the hapless messiness of human lives. There are no "ideal" husbands, in other words, but an ideal love might be found between people willing to explore the gap between their own great expectations and their humble, if not heinous, behavior.

Wilde, of course, was also the master of communicating a truth by saying its opposite. Alongside Robert and Gertrude's private struggles to talk honestly (which are at once amusing and moving, thanks to Blanchett and Northam) runs a stream of giddily silly verbiage mostly spouted by Lord Goring. A dandy nonpareil, Goring conveys nothing--and everything--in brilliant duets with his valet, his father, Mrs. Cheveley, and the sporty Mabel (Minnie Driver), Robert's sister. Goring's wordplay is a game allowing those in the know to articulate difference publicly without social risk--a game well exploited by Wilde, a homosexual in sexually repressed English society.

A century later, hetero audiences have seen enough of gay culture to be able to read these embedded signs: a superficially superficial, hunky 36-year-old "bachelor" obsessed with fashion? Right. All credit goes to Everett, then, for making Goring's sexuality believably and fabulously ambiguous. One moment he's playing to gay viewers with a satirical lift of an eyebrow or a sneaky little moue, the next he's capably melting Mabel with a hot stare and creeping past Mrs. Cheveley's defenses with a velvety midnight voice. Everett even manages to instill uncertainty into the inevitable final wedding recessional, putting a fevered spin on his last words: "I hope not, I hope not."

Indeed, Everett's ability to exude enigmatic desire in both gay and straight roles is his ace-in-hand as an actor: He can draw sparks from a stone statue--as this movie proves. More Cary Grant than Hugh, Everett entwines power and vulnerability, urbanity and lust, the hint of blue depths with the flipness of one who doesn't take himself too seriously. Lean and curvy, he gracefully coaxes tense opposites together like the best leading men, from Cary Grant to Paul Newman to Chow Yun-Fat. Times may have changed enough since Cary Grant's day for Everett the gay man to be out and Everett the actor to continue to get droll work teasing both sexes, as he does in An Ideal Husband. (I'll keep my fingers crossed.)

Everett particularly shines here, because he's matched up with other perfectly cast, dazzling actors. I was going to say that the language is so nice you could conceivably close your eyes and comprehend it all; but then you'd miss the sight of Moore's Mrs. Cheveley, mischievous as an elfin Peter Pan, suddenly baring her teeth. Or Driver making of Mabel an impertinent, cheeky adventurer with a love-struck heart. Blanchett and Northam pull off a couple of scenes where their guts might as well be twitching on the floor. Even the bit actors carve out incisive portraits. Considering this is a comedy, the fullness of these characterizations is wonderful.

Nevertheless, there's something hollow about this 1999 version. The script gives Sir Robert a grand speech about shedding "our imperfect past" and stepping "unshackled" into the next century "to look our future squarely and proudly in the face." But the character of the foppish Lord Goring is still cloaked in coded sign. An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were the last plays written by Wilde before he was jailed on sodomy charges; this one feels wistful, as if the writer longed to open his closets and damn the scandal, but knew the act impossible. The choice was made for him. After two years in prison, he emerged bankrupt, and was dead within three years. On the eve of another century, Wilde is revived: It's easy to appreciate his skillful stabs at hypocrisy and his winking disguises. Yet, despite Everett's further winks, this story ends the same way: queerness assimilated and nullified. As we like it?

 

An Ideal Husband starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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