The characters in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, at least on the page, are so brittle with pith and rectitude they might as well be sporting hairline fractures. Onscreen, in the adaptation by Oliver Parker, they’re fleshier, sexier. The cast is almost too right: Rupert Everett, with his aristocratic hair and sly eye, plays the foppish bachelor Lord Goring; John Wood is Goring’s infinitely critical, infinitely doting father Lord Caversham; Jeremy Northam, last seen as the crusading barrister in The Winslow Boy, is Sir Robert Chiltern, Parliament’s rising star, who is being blackmailed by Mrs. Cheveley, played by Julianne Moore, in connection with a secret financial scandal of his from years before. Sir Robert’s wife, Lady Gertrude, who believes her husband is ideal and can’t bear the imputation of scandal, is played by Cate Blanchett. Minnie Driver is Mabel, Sir Robert’s sister, with designs on Lord Goring. This isn’t a cast, really – it’s a stock company.
Our familiarity with the actors, and their comfort in this period setting, lend the piece an unexpected air of naturalism. Parker hasn’t simply reproduced Wilde; he’s bolstered certain characters, especially Mrs. Cheveley and Mabel, and also done some wholesale rewriting, notably in the end, when he concocts a bet between Mrs. Cheveley and Lord Goring that threatens to turn the proceedings into a cliff-hanger. Sacrilege aside, all this plays rather well, but I wish Parker had tried to preserve even more of the Wildean tone – that is to say, the sense of life as an exquisite, farcical artwork. Parker closes the gender gap a bit more than Wilde did – the sexual byplay seems more modern than late Victorian – and he also punches up the connection the play makes between moral stricture and political scandal. I realize this is meant to highlight the material’s “universality,” but it’s disconcerting here to be tweaked, even ever so gently, into drawing contemporary parallels: One doesn’t really want to be thinking of Bill Clinton while watching Oscar Wilde.
Still, the movie achieves the play’s primary effect: what Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellmann described as a “gradual expansion of tenderness.” Lord Goring may be the archetypal Wildean dandy, but what that also means is that his dandyism masks surprising depths of feeling. His triumph is that, acting as unofficial emcee, he rescues everybody, even himself, from hypocrisy. This is a victory for upper-class manners, but it doesn’t smack of snobbery. It just seems like the right way to behave. These characters inhabit a world in which all human interaction is a form of commerce, but they learn to move beyond that – into a world where love can’t be auctioned off. The ideal husband turns out to be as much a figment as the ideal wife, and in that realization lies a happy salvation.