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Saturday, Feb. 19, 2000

'AN IDEAL HUSBAND'

The importance of being hitched


Oscar Wilde expounding on the theme of an ideal husband is a bit like a drug addict expounding on the virtues of sobriety. Everything he says is insightful and true, but there's a certain temptation to fling out a "Oh yeah? So whaddayou know about it?"

Nevertheless, this is the topic of one of Wilde's most successful plays: "An Ideal Husband," now fully resurrected on screen by Oliver Parker ("Othello"). If we can't go to the Haymarket Theater of 1893 to see the real thing, then Parker's adaptation must be the closest approximation or even better. If only Oscar was around to see it today. I picture him adjusting his silk cravat, tucking a walking stick under one arm before tossing out a nonchalant "Really, I must see the chap who did this and offer some congratulations."

The brilliance of this film owes much to the cast. Parker shrewdly kept the original lines intact and relied on his characters to inject them with what can only be described as a subtle adrenaline rush. The more they perform and the story progresses the more effective it becomes. Suitably, the camera refrains from fancy tricks or even moving around any more than necessary. It stays, calmly and firmly on the face of whoever is speaking whatever juicy line, and believe me, every single line is juicy.

Rupert Everett plays Lord Goring, a deserving narcissist whose favorite pastime is to gaze into the mirror and murmur (as a faithful butler hovers nearby) "to love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance." Having reached the reasonable age of 36, he only admits to 32 and scorns the daily urging of his father (John Wood) to find a match in some nice young girl and run full speed to the altar. The idea of a permanent relationship chills the Lord to his bones even though his best friend Sir Robert (Jeremy Northam) is content with wife Gertrud (Cate Blanchett) in what is renowned in London as the ideal marriage.

The ladies of London high society do their best to convince Lord Goring otherwise, and Miss Mabel (Minnie Driver), sister of Sir Robert, is almost on the brink of success. If not for the sudden appearance of Mrs. Chevely (Julianne Moore) -- temptress, scandalmonger and blackmailer -- all would have been plain sailing, for even the bright and saucy Miss Mabel looks a bit drab next to the glamorous evil that exudes from this femme. Moore plays the part with obvious relish and the scene where she has Everett cornered on a bench, threatening utter disaster if he won't marry her, should be emblazoned on a tea service and sold as a (nasty) wedding gift.

As for Everett, he is the perfect specimen of someone gorgeous, gracious and totally fun, who will nevertheless avoid matrimony like the plague. Given that he's gay (like Wilde), one surmises that much of his performance was real-life. He looked frankly uncomfortable when facing Mrs. Chevely and ready to run out the door whenever he came within a yard of Miss Mabel. When he finally does decide to marry, his performance is more that of a traitor about to be shot against the wall than a prospective bridegroom.

All this unfolds against the backdrop of splendid early Victorian drawing rooms, conservatories, Claridges and ladies waving feathered fans. Not one bedraggled homeless person or angry alcoholic road sweeper to strike even the faintest note of discord. But then this was the world of Wilde, who moved in the highest of London society and took tea with the likes of Sarah Bernhardt.

No one ever described the aristocratic frame of mind with such photographic precision -- he had forensic knowledge of their conversations, their tastes, their hypocrisies, tragedies and most of all their ennui. As for his views on the wedded state, it amounted to: "In a marriage, three is company and two, none."

Call it cynical, but it does seem more intelligent and practical than the modern view that enforces a sort of extra-strength love whose effects wear out soon enough and must be discarded for the next dose. Personally, I attribute Wilde's bons mots to the social system. There they were, the aristocrats, with nothing to do but hone their conversational skills over tea, parties and horseback riding.

Plenty of time for ennui and cynicism. Whereas the average modern couple has to get up in the morning and go to work. Hounded by voicemail and e-mail and cell-phone messages, ennui and contemplation seems more remote than going to the moon. See "An Ideal Husband" if only for a 100-minute sampling.

"An Ideal Husband" is playing at Bunkamura's Le Cinema in Shibuya.


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