Main cast: Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Chiltern), Cate Blanchett (Gertrude Chiltern), Rupert Everett (Lord Goring), Minnie Driver (Mabel Chiltern), and Julianne Moore (Mrs Cheveley)
Director: Oliver Parker
I love Oscar Wilde, hence I leapt at the chance to watch An Ideal Husband. And it’s not a bad movie.
First off, I must get this off my chest:
Jeremy Northam must never put on a fuddy duddy moustache in any movie role again! He looks like a silly buffoon.
At the turn of the new century, people of the upper Ton are restricted by many silly conventions and rules. A hushed yet loud gossip of one’s indiscretion can cause his disgraceful downfall. Sir Robert Chiltern is an upright member of the Parliament, a champion for the right causes, and his wife Gertrude is the pinnacle of virtue and womanhood. Then one day Sir Chiltern decides to oppose a canal scam. Mrs Cheveley who has invested money in that venture, however, steps in and waves an incriminating letter that documents his one indiscretion that can cause his public disgrace. Hence poor Robert is torn between duty and self-protection. Lord Goring is his best friend, a rake who insists he is thirty-two and not thirty-eight like his father remembers, who was once engaged to Mrs Cheveley. He steps in to help Robert, but only to be caught in Cheveley’s web when she decides that he would make her a perfect third hubby. It’s marriage or else. Yet Goring has fallen in love with Mabel, Gertrude’s spunky, tomboyish sister who has a penchant for Oriental cheongsams.
But forget the plot. What the late Mr Wilde, that sly old queen, wanted was an audience to watch his interesting characters prance on stage. Let’s do him a favor and dissect them, shall we?
Robert is a wonderful character. So he as a dopey moustache. No matter. Robert is a man who has boxed himself in a corner. Yes, he is a noble man, but he is also human. His one indiscretion can cause him to lose everything, and he is clearly being torn apart day by day by this dilemma. Here is a man who enjoys being placed on a pedestal, and now that he is about to fall off it, he doesn’t know what to do. If he has a fault, it is being too much a gentleman. He is powerless to act unfairly, in fact, I doubt he even considers such tactics to remove Mrs Cheveley’s threat. And darling Jeremy Northam plays him superbly. When he holds Gertrude close, almost pleadingly telling her “Love me, Gertrude, love me forever,” you know he is ardent. This is a man who doesn’t know how to be anyone other than a beloved public figure.
His wife Gertrude is his perfect woman, a rather prim and proper woman whom I feel is more in love with the pedestal she puts her husband on than the poor man himself. That woman is a moron, to be blunt. If I’m her, I’d be relieved and would dancing about singing “Hail Mary” when I discover my handsome upright hubby isn’t as perfect as I thought. Poor Robert. It must be hard to be living with a woman who demands total perfection in character. I never can understand Gertrude. Her scenes with Mabel and Goring suggest a latent craving for excitement – you can feel her almost palpable envy at Mabel’s vivid character and outspokenness. This is a woman whose only color in life is experienced via observing the people around her. She is content to live as if she’s the eye of a storm, a sole anchor of godliness in sinful old London. In short, a total bore. I wonder if she extra-starched her chemises. When Goring tells her that she’s a coward to deny that her husband is human and prone to mortal fallacy, I can only agree. She shows signs of thawing at the end, especially after Mr Wilde put her in an unenviable position of having to lie to win the husband she throws out of the house back. This woman learns at the end that even she is not above human folly. Thank God, I never like women like these. They are the ones who go around making us mortals feel inferior. Thank you Goring. One more bites the dust!
If Gertrude and Robert are two planks who can’t bend rules to save their lives, Mrs Cheveley never hesitates to break rules altogether. In fact, Mrs Cheveley is the true brainy person in this movie. Devious, cunning, seductive, and well aware of her sexual allure, she nearly succeeds because she is not afraid play foul. In a society where the rules are followed rigidly – at least in public – the characters in this movie are flabbergasted and at a total loss when she breaks these rules. Gertrude can’t publicly turn her away no matter how much she despises Mrs Cheveley – Gertrude can only offer a stern but weak plea, coated in sugared words, that she never grace the Chiltern home again. When Cheveley ignores the unspoken rule that she should comply to this order, Gertrude is at loss. When Cheveley cuts her down savagely, Gertrude doesn’t know how to respond because society dictums never taught her how to respond to such blunt malice. I can’t help but to admire Cheveley, not for her deviousness, mind you, for her ability to make men and women alike break apart merely by not following conventions. Wonderfully bitchy and wicked too, Cheveley played by Julianne Moore is clearly the star of this movie.
Her counterpart Goring, despite amusing wittiness and a tendency to postpone serious discussions to the following day that never comes, is helpless in face of Cheveley’s deviousness. Dear Goring, gorgeous as sin, whose polished dandified rake veneer is ruthlessly ripped apart by Cheveley to reveal the surprisingly conventional gentleman underneath, a man who stands by his best friend. Goring isn’t above bending the rules, but he never breaks them. Gentlemanly codex demands that he remains by his friend – he would had left Mabel stranded to prostitute himself to Cheveley if that woman didn’t take pity and offered him a way out. Indeed, the ending suggests to me an act of mercy on Cheveley’s part. It is as if she’s tired to fooling with these bunch of people who are helpless against her. I can just picture her thinking, “Oh fie! Now I remember why British blokes are so bloody boring! I better take the next ship to Vienna fast!”
Ah yes, Goring and Mabel. Mabel is so underdeveloped it is almost a crime. Her relationship with Goring is superficial, lacking any passion apart from really witty banters. Here is a woman that is spunky, intelligent, and like Goring, is not afraid to bend the rules. And what else? Nothing? Mabel is a one-dimensional hot-headed wisecracking hoyden. A pity really.
Oh, and I must say that An Ideal Husband is essentially a movie about women. Yes, that’s right. Robert is put through all this agony because he can’t live without Gertrude’s Mary-Magdalene sort of adoration. Goring is put through all this heartache because ultimately Mabel holds his heart. And all these players have their puppet strings pulled by Cheveley. Oscar Wilde, that naughty old witch, had written a castrating revenge story against the hypocritical sanctimonious bastards who made his life hell!