Friday, March 21, 2008

AN IDEAL HUSBAND (Miramax 1999) Buena Vista Home Video

Oliver Parker’s An Ideal Husband (1999) is a faithful adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s scathingly comedic stage play first presented to the public in 1895. Like so many of Wilde’s great masterworks, the themes of public vs. private honor are of central focus and concern in the film’s screenplay (also by Parker).

Indeed, by the time the play premiered, Oscar Wilde was accustomed to success and An Ideal Husband’s run of 124 public performances was no exception. Unfortunately for Wilde, in April of that same year he was arrested and charged with ‘gross indecency’ over a homosexual affair gone sour – a crime that marred his public reputation and directly led to his name being removed as the author of the play. In reflection, Wilde would later write,
“We shall all have to pay for what we do…but no one should be entirely judged by their past.”
Parker’s adaptation of Wilde’s play begins on the eve of a lavish party at the fashionable home of London politico Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam). Lady Chiltern (Cate Blanchette) is the epitome of social grace and congeniality. The guest roster also includes family friend and dandified bachelor Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett) and Robert’s precocious sister Mabel (Minnie Driver) who is heart sore for Goring’s affections. Goring is determined to play the field, remaining faithful to no one woman, much to the chagrin and social embarrassment of his stoic father, Lord Caversham (John Wood).

Not on the guest list, though nevertheless present and accounted for is Mrs. Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore) – a school rival of Lady Chiltern. Laura attempts to blackmail Robert into publicly supporting her scheme in the House of Commons for the construction of a canal in Argentina. Cheveley’s upper hand in this matter stems from a prior association between Robert and Cheveley’s mentor Baron Arnheim (Jeroen Krabbe). In those early days of Robert’s career it was Arnheim’s tip off that netted Robert a tidy sum on which the very foundations of all his financial wealth and political power have since grown. Fearing certain character assassination, Robert reluctantly submits to Laura’s demands.

Hurt by her husband’s change of heart – and misconstruing it to mean that a passionate affair might have developed between Robert and Laura – Lady Chiltern demands that Robert renege on his promise; effectively rupturing his career and home life. Meanwhile, Lord Goring presses Robert to fight Cheveley and admit his prior guilt to his wife. Unfortunately for all, it is this moment of truth that also reveals Robert and Laura were once engaged to each another. Unable to forgive her husband for these ‘betrayals,’ Lady Chiltern exiles Robert from their home.

Goring becomes involved in retrieving the supposed ‘letter’ of intent written in Robert’s hand that Laura is using as leverage in her blackmail. The acquisition of this document effectively sets Goring up to play the romantic fop with Laura after Lord Caversham erroneously deduces that his son has affections for Cheveley.

Eventually, Goring smoothes the surfaces of this rather abrasive lover’s triangle – exposing Laura as a devious vixen while winning Mabel’s hand in marriage – though not before he is able to restore Robert to his rightful place both at home and in parliament. In the final analysis, all ends well for everyone concerned – a merriment that Oscar Wilde frequently fell back on in his texts but readily discredited in public as mere fancy unaccustomed to life’s machineries.

The production values of this magnificent film are impeccable and lavish. In execution, however, the action does tend to become a tad stifling rather than buoyant – the chain of devious events bunching together in the late third act rather than spreading consistently throughout the narrative development. Rupert Everett does some of his best acting in his career as the randy bachelor stirred to settling down. His performance is fraught with integrity and blithe humor: ditto for Jeremy Northam’s performance as the long suffering politician with secrets to keep.

However, it must be pointed out that Cate Blanchette’s turn as Lady Chiltern is politely out of step with the rest of the cast. Essentially, she overplays her hand, as does Minnie Driver. Ultimately, none of these ‘shortcomings’ ruin the film in any lasting way. Though truncated by Parker’s hand, there remains enough of Oscar Wilde’s magnificence within the spoken word to captivate and tantalize the eardrum, even when the eye becomes ever so slightly weary with the visuals presented on screen.

Buena Vista Home Video’s DVD is quite satisfactory. The anamorphic widescreen image is solid, though it retains some age related scratches and chips from its source material. This disc has obviously been minted from a print and not the actual camera negative. Colors are refined. Contrast levels appear just a tad weaker than expected. Blacks are deep and solid but whites adopt a dingy gray patina in many of the darker scenes. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite adequately represented for what is essentially a dialogue driven narrative. Extras are limited to a brief vintage featurette and theatrical trailer. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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