An Ideal Husband

UK/USA 1999

Film still for An Ideal Husband

Reviewed by Peter Matthews


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

London, 1895. Sir Robert Chiltern MP is happily married to the high-minded Gertrude. One evening, the Chilterns hold a reception. Among the guests are Sir Robert's sister Mabel, his best friend Arthur Goring - and Mrs Laura Cheveley. Laura asks Robert for his public support of an Argentinian canal scheme in which she has invested heavily. Robert turns her down, but Laura reveals she has an incriminating letter he once wrote. She threatens to expose the fraud on which Robert built his wealth if he will not do her bidding. Robert agrees to back her scheme in the Commons.

Gertrude persuades Robert to write to Laura and withdraw his promise, whatever it is. Robert confides his woes to Arthur. Receiving Robert's note, Laura visits Gertrude and reveals to her Robert's secret. Disillusioned with her "ideal husband", Gertrude sends an urgent note to Arthur, requesting a private interview. Expecting Gertrude, Arthur instructs his butler Phipps to admit an unidentified lady and no one else. When Mrs Cheveley unexpectedly arrives, Phipps escorts her to Arthur's study, where she steals Gertrude's note. Now Robert appears, desperate for advice. Hearing a noise in the study, he finds Laura and storms out. Laura suggests a wager to Arthur: she will return Chiltern's letter if he condemns the canal scheme in parliament; if he endorses it, Arthur must marry her.

Robert condemns the scheme, and Laura hands the letter over to Arthur - but posts Gertrude's compromising note to Robert. Mabel claims the note was from her to protect Gertrude. Arthur proposes to Mabel and she accepts but Robert objects to the engagement, believing Arthur is conducting an affair with Mrs Cheveley. Gertrude comes clean and Robert is delighted to discover his perfect wife suffers from human frailty.


A few years ago, Oliver Parker directed a smooth, uninspired film version of Othello, notable for some radical pruning of the text and an attempt to 'open out' the play that consisted largely of velvety shots of torch-lit gondolas. Sadly, conspicuous consumption plus the odd camera flourish do not a memorable Shakespeare adaptation make. For all its prettiness, Parker's Othello ended up in a dull halfway house between theatre and cinema. His new translation of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband shows a similar infirmity of purpose, but with the opposite result. Far from being insufficiently cinematic, it isn't stagy enough. While Shakespeare's muscularity arguably lends itself to full-blooded spectacle, the whole point of Wilde lies in his coruscating effeteness. The overbred dandies of his plays turn tinkling triviality into a badge of honour - they are always acting, even in their own drawing rooms. A smart Wilde production should pursue the air of stilted theatricality to the very limit.

Wilde's epigrammatic prolixity poses obvious hazards for film-makers. Just about the only adaptation to strike the requisite note of overripe preciousness was Anthony Asquith's splendidly stagnant The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). Parker seems to have assumed that Wilde at full throttle would antagonise rather than captivate the hoi polloi. So he has shorn An Ideal Husband of some of its more egregiously fey dialogue (one certainly misses the jabbering Lady Markby), though what remains still makes for fairly recherché entertainment. Probably as a favour to rising star Minnie Driver, the ingenue Mabel's part has been beefed up; and now Sir Robert delivering his firebrand oration at the House of Commons is actually seen. It's understandable that Parker should want to ventilate Wilde's hothouse flowers a bit, yet the cinematic filigree he adds merely counterfeits movement. There are a few too many shots of messengers scampering across London charged with fatal letters; and one or two montage sequences (of feet dancing or people dressing for dinner) reach new heights of visual redundancy. Trying for pace and variety, the movie whips between picturesque locations, often in mid-speech: characters are apt to begin a pensée in a parlour and complete it in a steam room. Parker's shuttlecock technique only succeeds in throwing Wilde's cascading rhythms seriously out of whack and makes it hard to attend to the language as fully as one would like. Fortunately, the play has the kind of sturdy Victorian backbone that stands firm whatever latterday tinkerers choose to do with it.

Now and then, Parker scores a scrupulously balanced composition (as in the ceremonial two-shots announcing the reunion of the estranged Chilterns), and it becomes clear that he's fishing about for an equivalent to Wilde's formalism. But on the whole, his cinematic elaborations work to sentimentalise the tone. Where Wilde's imponderable ironies keep you guessing as to whether his characters are quite the twittering creatures they appear, the realism inseparable from 'opening out' implicitly obliges you to take them as human beings.

Still, the actors are superbly accoutred down to the last footman, projecting high elegance even when the direction doesn't. Wearing his new camp image like a queenly mantle, Rupert Everett performs an immaculate turn as the closet moralist Arthur Goring. Cate Blanchett makes an exquisitely distressed Lady Chiltern, while Minnie Driver gurgles and pouts as if possessed by the phantom of Joan Greenwood. However, the show belongs to the phenomenally gifted Julianne Moore, who goes from playing a suburban housewife (Safe) to a porn star (Boogie Nights) to the conniving grande dame here, and manages to be fresh and different every time. Perhaps in the interest of softening the role, Mrs Cheveley has been robbed of the great coup de théâtre when she is exposed. But even so, Moore gives the best display of female Machiavellianism since Bette Davis held court over The Little Foxes (1941).


Barnaby Thompson
Uri Fruchtmann
Bruce Davey
Oliver Parker
Based on the play by
Oscar Wilde
Director of Photography
David Johnson
Guy Bensley
Production Designer
Michael Howells
Charlie Mole
©The Ideal Film Company Ltd
Production Companies
Icon Entertainment International and Pathe Pictures in association with the Arts Council of England present a Fragile Film in association with Icon Productions and Miramax Films
Supported by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England
Executive Producers
Susan Landau
Ralph Kamp
Andrea Calderwood
Nicky Kentish Barnes
Paul Tucker
Production Supervisor
Waldo Roeg
Unit Production Manager
Jo Farr
Location Supervisor
Sarah Lee
Location Manager
Simon Crawford Collins
Post-production Supervisor
Tania Windsor Blunden
Assistant Directors
Richard Hewitt
Toby Sherborne
Matthew Penry-Davey
Marshall Leviten
Script Supervisor
Jean Bourne
Casting Director
Celestia Fox
Text Adviser
Russell Jackson
Camera Operator
Martin Kenzie
Digital Visual Effects
The Magic Camera Company
Special Effects
Paul Dimmer
Art Director
Rod McLean
Set Decorator
Katie Lee
Gallery Paintings
James Gemmill
Paul Westacott
Storyboard Artist
Jim Staines
Costume Designer
Caroline Harris
Costume Supervisor
Ali Goss
Wardrobe Masters
Joe Hobbs
Marcus Love-McGuirk
Make-up/Hair Design
Peter King
Chief Make-up Artist
Elizabeth Tagg
Make-up/Hair Artists
Tamsin Dorling
Veronica Brebner
Kirstie Stanway
Chief Hairdresser
Paul Gooch
Hair Artist
Jamie Pritchard
Titles/Film Opticals
The Magic Camera Company
Title Design
Tom Hingston Studio
Music Conductors/
Nick Ingman
Geoff Alexander
Additional Orchestrations
John Bell
Mike Townend
Orchestra Leader
Gavyn Wright
Music Supervisor
Eliza Thompson
Music Editor
Mike Higham
Music Recorder/Mixer
Steve Price
Sue Nye
Sound Recording
Peter Lindsay
Re-recording Mixer
Adrian Rhodes
Supervising Sound Editor
Max Hoskins
Sound Effects Editor
Chris Ackland
Crowd Group:
Marcella Riordan
Peter Burgiss
Andi Derrick
Miriam Ludbrook
Fencing Arranger
Bill Hobbs
Cate Blanchett
Lady Gertrude Chiltern
Minnie Driver
Mabel Chiltern
Rupert Everett
Arthur Goring
Julianne Moore
Mrs Laura Cheveley
Jeremy Northam
Sir Robert Chiltern
John Wood
Lord Caversham
Lindsay Duncan
Lady Markby
Peter Vaughan
Jeroen Krabbé
Baron Arnheim
Ben Pullen
Tommy Trafford
Marsha Fitzalan
Neville Phillips
Nickolas Grace
Vicounte de Nanjac
Simon Russell Beale
Sir Edward
Anna Patrick
Miss Danvers
Delia Lindsay
Lady Basildon
Denise Stephenson
Charles Edwards
Nancy Carroll
Andy Harrison
Jill Balcon
Lady Bracknell
Janet Henfrey
Miss Prism
Toby Robertson
Canon Chasuble
Michael Culkin
Oscar Wilde
Oliver Parker
Douglas Bradley
Stephen May
Susannah Wise
young mother
Peter Parker
MP 1
Oliver Ford Davies
Sir Hugo Danforth
Neil Mendoza
MP 2
John Thompson
the speaker
Pathé Distribution
tbc feet
tbc minutes
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011