As noted, most summer comedies are as rude as a fart. So it’s a relief to find the gentlefolk at Miramax providing an elegantly funny film version of Oscar Wilde’s play about British high jinks in high places. An Ideal Husband opened onstage in 1895, the same year that the bisexual Wilde was imprisoned on charges of gross indecency. How clever of Wilde, then, to write his alter ego into the play in the person of Lord Arthur Goring, an acerbically witty scamp whose knack for getting himself into scandalous fixes is rivaled only by his skill at getting other people out of theirs. The role is an ideal fit for Rupert Everett, who gives every barb its comic due (“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance”) without losing that surprising, touching side of Lord Arthur as the outsider who battles intolerance (“Life cannot be lived without much charity, cannot be understood without much charity”). Everett, who gives the performance of his career, is perfection.
The movie itself, adapted for the screen and directed by Oliver Parker (his 1995 film of Othello, with Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh, was a botch job), lacks Everett’s ease. Parker has pared down the play and made a few additions of his own, but he can’t disguise the frontload of plot exposition. Get your pencils: Lord Arthur’s friend, the politically ambitious Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), is being blackmailed by the flirtatious Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore), who has proof that he once sold Cabinet secrets about the Suez Canal. Sir Robert is horrified, not merely because of his career but because his wife, Lady Chiltern (Cate Blanchett), is a figure of strict rectitude who cannot tolerate character flaws, especially in her ideal husband. Both Chilterns turn to Lord Arthur to untie their knotty problems, while Mabel Chiltern (Minnie Driver), Sir Robert’s sister, eyes Lord Arthur as potential husband material for herself.
Phew! What shakes the dust off this period piece is the vibrant acting. Northam, on a roll with his superb turn in The Winslow Boy and a contemporary change of pace in the upcoming Happy, Texas, finds the bruised feelings in his flawed hero. Blanchett (Elizabeth) manages the neat trick of making virtue seem enticing. Driver is flighty fun in her scenes with Everett. And Moore (Boogie Nights), using seductive guile and an impeccable British accent, creates a hissable-kissable villain. As these lovers and liars sneak around the corridors of politics and sex — shades of the White House and Whitewater — Wilde proves that even a century after his death, he can still throw a hell of a party.