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An Ideal Husband

Less than ideal

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Arts Ediror

Written and directed by Oliver Parker, based on the play by Oscar Wilde

With Jeremy Northam, Rupert Everett, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore, Minnie Driver

When I first tried to watch An Ideal Husband at a press screening at Loews Cheri, the showing was awash in technical problems: it started twenty minutes late, there was no air conditioning, the lights were left on, the image was out of focus, and there was no sound. I walked after five minutes, and I don’t think I’ll be going to that theater again. My second attempt failed similarly, when the Loews Harvard theater had their air conditioning system break down in the 96 degree heat. During my third attempt (at Coolidge Corner), the image was somewhat underlit -- but by this time I was so desperate, I stayed. It seems that the guiding hand of fate was trying to steer me away from this movie, and now I wish I obeyed.

An Ideal Husband is an example of how not to direct a movie. With such superlative resources at his disposal -- star-studded cast, great source play, lush production design -- all that director/writer Oliver Parker manages to create is a particularly joyless, visually bland, narratively pedestrian, weird mixture of light comedy and somber drama, with these two halves desperately fighting each other. At least this movie displays some signs of life in its second half, as opposed to Parker’s previous film, Othello, which was rather dreadful throughout.

The characters, all of which belong to the upper crust of British society, include a dashing and unrepentantly single Lord Goring (Rupert Everett, picking another wrong movie after A Midsummer NightÍs Dream), his friend Sir Robert Chiltern, his wife Gertrude (Cate Blanchett) and sister Mabel (Minnie Driver), as well as a mysterious Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore), who comes to visit Sir Robert with a particular purpose on her mind.

First thing obvious about An Ideal Husband is that it’s not an Oscar Wilde play: it’s a bad adaptation of an Oscar Wilde play. It’s entirely obvious which line remained from the play (hint: it’s usually the funny one) and which was added by screenwriter (hint: it’s usually the cliched one). It’s also clear, despite the token attempt to open up the action, that we’re watching a stage play: the scenes that are added (at an art gallery, or at an outdoor park) are short, poorly written, and pointless.

Second thing that’s obvious: the actors are hardly directed at all. For the first half of the play, before the plot really kicks in, all of them look stranded. Northam and Blanchett attempt a realistic take on their characters, and this glaringly clashes with Driver’s highly stylized performance (a less charitable term for this would be “a caricature”, but I really don’t think it’s entirely her fault). As for Everett, he goes for a singularly unorthodox way of delivering Wilde’s celebrated quips, barbs, and one-liners: he mumbles them in a bored monotone.

There’s nothing to write home about visuals: there’s less than a half dozen shots where Parker manages to position his camera to successfully capture the impressive period decor. The musical score is worse than bland: it’s either depressively somber or aggressively cheerful, hitting the viewers on the head with the fact that this scene is supposed to be funny!

Wilde nearly saves the day, however -- with more than a little help from Northam. The second half of the play, where Sir Robert is faced with a daunting moral dilemma, is a great example how to construct and realize a gripping dramatic conflict. Northam jumps at the chance, and his portrayal of a man in desperate fight with himself is right on the mark. The climax of this fight -- at a session of British Parliament, no less -- is thrilling..

Of course, after that, we’re forced to endure another half an hour of desperately forced whimsy, more misplaced camera angles, more “you will laugh right now!” music, and more clashes of acting styles. The final romantic pairing, which concludes the movie, is the last straw, since there was absolutely no chemistry between the characters throughout the movie, most probably because they shared something like half of a scene.

All of this, of course, is a major argument in favor of the auteur theory, which states that it’s the director, not the screenwriter or the producer, who’s the ultimate creator of the movie. Just compare two, very similar, films: An Ideal Husband and The Winslow Boy. Both are based on the turn-of-the-century British plays, both take place among the members of the upper echelons of the society, both feature heated parliamentary debates, and both (coincidentally, I’m sure) star Jeremy Northam as a morally ambiguous politician. But in making The Winslow Boy, writer-director David Mamet managed to take a highly mediocre play and turn it into a rather affecting motion picture. With An Ideal Husband, writer-director Oliver Parker managed to take an excellent play and turn it into a drab and incongruous disappointment.