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March 10, 2012

An Ideal Husband


Usually, I do a book or a movie review on something that I read or watched recently. Today, I will do both of them at the same time. An Ideal Husband is an 1895 comedy play by one of my favorite authors, Oscar Wilde. The movie is a… fairly faithful adaptation. Released in 1999 and directed by Oliver Parker, it has a magnificent cast: Rupert Everett, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Jeremy Northam and Minnie Driver amongst others.

The four act play, like many of Wilde’s other works, is witty and irreverent. However, it was not until I was reading the second Act that it really began to click with me. During the first Act, I was trying to get my bearings on who’s who and since I was reading the book before going to sleep, I had to put it down several times.

Although, the play has its funny moments, I wouldn’t quite put it on par with Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest.” However, it is in the criticism and irony leveled against the English nobility of his time where the play excels; particularly, when he addresses the peccadilloes or outright hypocrisy of the supposedly unblemished high-moral ground behavior of the uppers or High society, during the height of the British Empire. Criticism, I may add, whose relevance has not been lost with the passage of time.

The play starts at an elegant dinner soirée, at Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern’s home on Grosvenor Square. They are a successful and much talked about couple; however, a childless one. Lady Chiltern embodies probity and holds her husband, in the highest moral regards. He is the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs and notorious for his morality-bound speeches in the House of Commons. There is gossip of him earning a place in the prime minister’s cabinet, at Number 10 Downing Street.

Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern

Lord Goring, Arthur, is a confessed bachelor who wishes nothing but to pursue mindless activities of fun and games. He is the closest friend to the Chiltern’s. In a way, Arthur embodies Wilde’s irreverence. Not only is he a source of amusement but he is also a pivotal character, particularly, in the movie. He has the power to tilt the balance of outcomes, one way or another.

During the course of the evening, they meet Mrs. Cheveley, a femme fatale and Lady Chiltern’s former schoolmate. She is wealthy, ambitious and quite callous and I even dare say, contemptible of English morality. She was not wealthy to begin with. However, she made her fortune in Vienna through unspecified dubious means. She makes it a point to meet Sir Robert alone and blackmails him point blank.

As it turns out, Mrs. Cheveley has come into possession of an extremely compromising letter, which attests to the less than honorable way in which Sir Robert made his fortune. Mrs. Cheveley, is not someone one trifles with; she will carry out her threat unless Sir Robert vouches for a major financial swindle, at an upcoming speech in the House of Commons. And should she go to the press with it, he would be finished. But more importantly, he would lose his wife’s seemly undying respect and love.

The play has its surprising twists and turns along the lines of the best whodunit thriller. At some point, even though Sir Robert has a most questionable past, we, or at least I, get to despise the ruthlessness of Mrs. Cheveley. And here lies the dilemma. As much as a scoundrel as she might be, we cannot use the same measuring stick with Sir Robert, for he would certainly come up wanting.

Mrs. Cheveley

Even Lady Chiltern is forced to lie in order to avoid a major misunderstanding with her husband Robert.

I suppose that Mr. Wilde is telling us that even the most pious amongst us, is susceptible to err, because this is simply a human condition. No amount of “seaming” probity could keep anyone at bay. By extension, we could say that the moral ground from which many a people of power base their harsh criticisms, could easily be, at most, questionable mires which barely lend support to their actions.

All in all, Wilde’s play is delightful and highly entertaining. And if you have the time why don’t you pick up a copy and read it?

Now, as far as the 1999 movie adaptation, there were some minor changes to the script. The setting is simply fabulous and lush. The costumes are brilliant. As I mentioned in my opening, the cast is superb. But, and there is a major but, the movie misses the mark on so many levels. The major fault is being totally unfunny and shallow.

Lord Goring

I suppose this is the case where too many cooks will ruin the stew.

Ironically, a few years later Rupert Everett tackled another one of Wilde’s plays, The Importance of Being Ernest, in which he does a much better job. But, I am not leveling a criticism at him in particular, but instead using him as an example. However, much the same thing could be said about all the major movie stars in the cast. Let us hope that there is a new work in the offing; perhaps the BBC?


Movie Trailer (1999)




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