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AN IDEAL HUSBAND

by: Scott Renshaw

AN IDEAL HUSBAND is so determinedly droll that it's likely to leave your cheeks aching from a sustained 96 minute smirk. That shouldn't be a tremendous shock considering we're talking about a play by Oscar Wilde, whose penchant for the tres bon mot was matched only by his curious desire to cobble them together into plots. He was smart enough to craft his stories into a crowd-pleasing romantic form, but he was generally less interested in emotional insight than he was in a witty turn of phrase. In the mouths of actors who know how to use them, his epigrams can make you forget that the narrative you're watching is fairly forgettable.

There are many such actors in AN IDEAL HUSBAND, enough to give the tale some devilish fun. Jeremy Northam essays Sir Robert Chiltern, an up-and-coming Member of Parliament in 1895 well-known for his integrity; the ever-radiant Cate Blanchett is his wife Gertrude, who places her husband on a pedestal of moral rectitude. There's Julianne Moore as Mrs. Chevely, who knows a dark secret from Sir Robert's past and expects political favors for her silence, and Minnie Driver as Sir Robert's high-spirited younger sister Mabel. And foremost there is Rupert Everett as rakish bachelor Lord Arthur Goring, the very portrait of slothful privilege and the dispenser of Wilde's most cutting social commentary.

Director Oliver Parker (who also adapted the screenplay) works at fleshing out the relationships in the story, trying to make the crisis in the Chilterns' marriage more significant. It's a noble idea, though the time isn't particularly well-spent. Northam broods as he faces his moment of truth, Blanchett melts in disappointment over dashed illusions, and both actors attempt to show us deep internal turmoil. Parker wants us to feel for them, while I suspect Wilde is more interested in making them look a bit foolish. Playing the characters with too much sincerity may be too "heavy" a reading of the material.

Fortunately, Parker still has plenty of juicy Wilde-ian dialogue to distribute. Much of it goes to Everett's Sir Arthur, who bites into his commentaries on marriage, politics and deception with relish. Many actors have opted to play Wilde with an eyebrow arched into the flight path passenger jets, as though we all must know they view life itself as a grand joke. Everett smartly opts for a refined weariness, the cynicism of a man who doesn't take much pleasure in his cynicism. It's a choice that makes his later romance with Mabel (played with beautiful intelligence by Driver) feel less like a plot device than it has any right to. When Everett and Driver banter, AN IDEAL HUSBAND floats on their appeal.

It's true that a little droll can go an awfully long way, and that AN IDEAL HUSBAND hardly offers a riveting portrait of scandal and redemption. Mostly it's a comedy of manners, one of Wilde's forrays into the difference between our public and private faces (a subject with which he was well acquainted). Though Parker's pacing lags between gags, there is just enough surprisingly modern satire -- and just enough Rupert Everett -- to maintain interest. The chuckles may rarely turn into belly laughs, but then again, that never was Wilde's style. AN IDEAL HUSBAND is the work of a writer who preferred his comedy on wry.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 Wilde lives: 6

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