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Movie Review

An Ideal Husband

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief nudity and sexual situations

Reviewed by: Matthew Rees

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Teens Adults
1 hr. 36 min.
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Box art from “An Ideal Husband”
Featuring: Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore, Jeremy Northam, Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver
Director: Oliver Parker
Producer: _____
Distributor: Miramax

“An Ideal Husband” is a movie which unfortunately was largely overlooked in the midst of 1999’s summer blockbuster season. I’ve seen several reviews criticizing it because it wasn’t as funny as the play by Oscar Wilde on which it’s based. I haven’t read the play myself, so I can’t comment on that regard. If it was supposed to be an out-and-out farce, as some people seem to think, then I agree that it falls short. However, as a gentle comedy of manners with a serious underlying message, it succeeds brilliantly. The movie which it most reminds me of in tone is the classic movie adaptation of “A Room with a View”.

The story is a subtle satire on the false cordiality of high society. Sir Robert Chiltern and his adoring wife Getrud are the toast of the town in turn-of-the-century London. They appear to be the perfect couple. Sir Robert is “a rising star in Parliament,” a fine, upstanding man of flawless integrity. His wife is intelligent, demure, involved in women’s politics, and totally devoted to her husband; the Proverbs 31 woman in every way. Into their lives comes a disturbance in the form of Mrs. Chevely, a woman of great charm and impeccable manners who happens to possess a very nasty secret about Sir Robert in the form of a letter which he wrote years ago to her late husband. She proceeds to blackmail him into endorsing a business venture which she has invested heavily in, but which he knows to be a fraud. Sir Robert turns in desperation to his best friend Lord Goring, “the idlest man in London,” to help him sort out the whole mess and prevent Mrs. Chevely from causing a scandal which would surely ruin him. To further complicate matters, Gertrud has no knowledge of the affair and Sir Robert is desperate to prevent her finding out lest her idealized image of him be shattered.

A movie such as this, with no action or special effects, is carried entirely by the script and the acting. Fortunately, both are excellent. The dialogue is loaded with gems (mostly from the mouth of Lord Goring) such as “I love talking about nothing. It is the only thing I know anything about.” The acting is brilliant all around, including the supporting cast (Minnie Driver as Sir Robert’s sister, John Wood as Lord Goring’s disapproving father, and Peter Vaughan as his long-suffering valet). If there was an Oscar for best casting, I’m sure this would be a contender. Although the plot revolves around Sir Robert, it is really Lord Goring who is the star of the show, and the title refers as much to him as to Sir Robert. One review I read stated that Rupert Everett plays the part as if it had been written for him, and I totally agree. Mrs. Chevely is played with delightfully restrained wickedness by Julianne Moore. Cate Blanchett and Jeremy Northam are totally convincing in their roles, and Minnie Driver steals every scene she is in. Her reaction when Lord Goring kisses her hand is my favorite moment in the whole movie.

Besides the fact that it’s simply a great movie, “An Ideal Husband” also has great moral themes. The predominant theme of the movie is the danger of putting someone else on a pedestal. Other morals that are prominently featured are honesty, loyalty, trust, self-sacrifice, taking responsibility for your actions, and keeping your word. Lord Goring carelessly swears an oath to Sir Robert in one scene, and has cause to regret it the very next moment. However, he is willing to stake his own future on his confidence in Sir Robert’s integrity, and he goes above and beyond the call of ordinary friendship in his attempt to protect Sir Robert and his wife from disgrace.

That is not to say that the movie is totally flawless. In spite of the virtues he displays in trying to help his friends, Lord Goring’s self-conscious decadence and self-absorption (“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance”) make him a less-than-perfect role-model. This shouldn’t be a problem for any discerning adult, however, and children aren’t likely to get very much out of the movie anyway. Some people might also take offense at the fact that Sir Robert expresses no real regret for his past indiscretions, only fear of being exposed. There is a handful of mild profanities, one scene in which Lord Goring is apparently hungover, and another in which he engages in what might best be called “heavy petting” with Mrs. Chevely in an attempt to get the letter from her. Sir Robert and Gertrud embrace passionately in a bedroom scene, but no nudity is involved.

The most troublesome scene, however, comes at the very beginning of the movie. We briefly see, from a distance, a naked woman exiting Lord Goring’s bed. It is very much in the background, however (the first time I saw the scene, I didn’t even notice the woman) and only lasts about five seconds. I suspect that this is the only reason the movie was rated PG-13 instead of PG. It’s also the only real indication of promiscuity on Lord Goring’s part in the whole movie. It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers felt a need to include it, but it really does not detract from the movie’s many positive aspects. Although you should be aware that it’s there, it’s easily skipped over.

The bottom line is that “An Ideal Husband” is well worth seeing if you prefer something more than shallow, flash-bang action movies. Its humor is subtle without being obscure, its plot is intelligent without being complex and its themes are mature without being sordid.

Viewer Comments
Pleasantly enjoyable. Not as much a “chick flick” as I was expecting. Situational ethics and lying to come into play here, though, and are not always treated correctly. But there were also instances of great moral character that should be applauded. My Ratings: [3½/4]
—Ken James, age 27
I enjoyed reading the viewer’s comments. He makes some very good points about AN IDEAL HUSBAND, originally an Oscar Wilde play, one that seems right for reinterpretation in today’s times of political intrigue and underhandedness. I also objected to the film’s opening scene. What was the point of the nudity? To tell us that things weren’t so different in the late 1800s as they are in the late 1900s? Such a scene hurts the story because it makes Goring’s subsequent courtship of Mabel look like a mere put-on. I had one other objection. The play’s ending contains the usual drawing room resoluions that unravel the mixed up messages and explain the confused identities. Wilde could do this brilliantly, but the movie tinkers with the original ending and adds a rather strange one of its own.

Lady Chiltern, the wife of the tainted polititian, Robert Chiltern, gives her own reason for the mayhem and the confusion. “I lied”, she giggles, as though her deception was on par with choosing the wrong flowers for a centerpiece. Her lie brings relief to the other characters. They giggle too. The lesson seems to be that an innocent lie is okay. Especially if it keeps a scandal at bay. I’m not sure what the filmmaker’s point is here. But he must have been influenced by the political events of 1999—who wasn’t?—and can’t help trying to influence opinion himself. I think he does a disservice to Wilde and to his own otherwise fine film. Can anyone imagine the line about the lie and the follow-up chuckle going over in the 1970s during the Watergate scandal?

The politics of lying have changed since the 1970s, but who’s to say they won’t change again twenty years from now? If they do, Mr. Parker’s tacked on ending will look pretty silly. I liked the movie, but I had trouble with the ending. It seemed to excuse—no, encourage—deception as a way to ensure what the filmmakers decide are greater goods. Oscar Wilde understood that fashion—couture or political—rises and falls while the human condition remains intact. Except for the changed ending, this movie brings that point across quite well. My Ratings: [3/3]
—Jim O’Neill, age 47