"An Ideal Husband"

Killing us softly with his rapier wit and exquisite profile, Rupert Everett upstages Oscar Wilde.

Published June 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's one thing to be a sly and subtle actor, as Rupert Everett is. But it's infinitely harder to be sly and subtle and also know how to use your exquisite profile as a kind of bombshell, as Everett does in Oliver Parker's breezily pleasing adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband." When Everett, as playboy bachelor and superior wit Lord Arthur Goring, enters a roomful of chattering partygoers, his profile cuts through the air like a ship's prow -- he's not so much assessing the crowd as claiming it as the territory of his own personal country. Goring is the kind of guy who explains to his manservant, "Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself." Yet his arrogance doesn't step over that ugly line into pure disdain. What Everett communicates beautifully -- in a way that would likely have pleased Wilde -- is that Goring's bemusement over his fellow human beings is a kind of love: crackling with static, often incomprehensible to bewildered onlookers, ceaselessly entertaining to those who are in on the joke. It's a harder kind of lover to play than the hearts-and-flowers kind, but Everett makes it look easy.

But then, he's the soul of the movie, and Parker knows it. "An Ideal Husband" at times has a kind of "Masterpiece Theatre" veneer to it, a surface sheen that's a little thick and gloppy. Early on, we're treated to a montage of fussy evening ties being straightened, a necklace being secured around a woman's neck, with Charlie Mole's overbearing string music swirling madly in the background: It all seems calculated to churn up excitement, a promise that there's lots of dazzle, glamour and intrigue to come. "An Ideal Husband" actually does deliver all those things, but mostly in a pleasurably understated way -- no need for the noisy signals. Parker, who himself adapted Wilde's play for the movie, takes what to purists may be an unforgivable number of liberties with the story, fleshing out the plot and even adding dialogue. Some of the additions (a quasi seduction scene between Everett and Julianne Moore, for example) work well; other times, the movie seems a little overcrowded with furniture, as if it might have been improved if some of the minor enhancements -- an extra scene or exchange here or there -- had been stripped back.

But overall, Parker strikes just the right balance of lightness and gravity, giving Wilde's wit lots of air (the only way to show how, a good 100 years later, it still breathes) instead of locking it up tight. The hub of the story is a potential political scandal: Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) is a rich and successful politician married to (and adored by) the dutiful, intelligent Gertrude (Cate Blanchett). He finds himself cornered by the scheming Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore), who's in possession of a letter that reveals a secret about his past that could ruin his career and his marriage -- she hopes to blackmail him into using his political influence to bolster the image of a risky canal scheme she's invested in heavily. Chiltern turns to his friend Lord Goring -- who, it turns out, has become smitten with Chiltern's younger sister Mabel -- for help. Goring -- who, for all his sidelong, gentlemanly bluster, has a heart that beats true -- drops everything to oblige, opening the door to myriad mishaps and misunderstandings.

Blanchett -- after playing very different roles in "Elizabeth" and "Pushing Tin" -- continues to be one of those actresses you watch to see what she'll come up with next. Her Gertrude is restrained and proper, a demanding, almost prissy, perfectionist, as Wilde wrote her. But Blanchett is also able to cut through to something that's ineffably touching about the character: "The world seemed to me finer because you were in it," she tells her husband when she learns of his transgressions, and her suffering is easy to read in her liquid eyes. Blanchett captures perfectly the sense that Gertrude is finding her own disillusionment harder to deal with even than her husband's imperfections: She's that much of a perfectionist, and her sudden helplessness throws her.

Moore lends less subtlety to her character but plenty of deviousness: Her line readings have a kind of crispy coolness -- there's a bit of snap to them, like the subtle crack of a celery stalk that's been standing in ice-water. Little wonder that Northam, as Chiltern, has trouble standing up to her. He's too stiff to ever get past the finicky properness of his character, the way Blanchett does.

But Minnie Driver -- aside from the fact that the upswept hair worn by the women characters does little to flatter her -- is far more annoying. Her idea of playing a spirited young woman consists of nothing more than turning her nose up in the air and reeling off her lines in staccato blips as if she hadn't a care in the world -- she's like a willful child popping the heads off daisies.

Which makes it all the more miraculous and wonderful that Everett makes us believe -- as sure as the moon hangs in the sky -- that he's stone in love with her. When she turns on her heel and walks away from him, the self-congratulatory sparkle in his eyes melts into a special brand of agony. One of Everett's first lines in the movie -- his way of greeting the day, after a curvy, anonymous paramour has excused herself from his bed -- is to lament all the social obligations he has to meet that day: "Distressingly little time for sloth or idleness." But because Everett's Lord Goring is so full of words, and always just the right ones, it nearly crushes you when he finds himself at a loss for them, as he is when he ultimately confesses his love to Mabel.

It's also, to Everett's credit, just funny enough: He knows the joke has to be on him. But then Everett -- who seemed, for a time, to have settled into a groove of acceptable but dull performances until he almost single-handedly salvaged the dreadful "My Best Friend's Wedding" -- has become a marvelously intuitive and, for all his innate elegance, inextinguishably alive actor. When he delivers a line, there are a million cues to listen for and look at: the wicked arch of his eyebrows, the polished-rosewood timbre of his voice, the way his lips often seem to be curved protectively around an intimate secret. He captures the essence of traditional English understatement, but even more important, he shows that there can be a weirdly simmering warmth just beneath its surface -- it's not necessarily about coolness or unflappability. His performance as Lord Goring is so delicately shaded, so prickly-plush, it's almost enough to make you forget that his profile could be the eighth natural wonder of the world.


By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

Related Topics ------------------------------------------