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Taming Wilde

Photo by Alex BaileyOSCAR WILDE WILL LIVE FOREVER, AND NOT JUST through his glittering one-liners. For all the playwright's scalding jabs at the London high society that made him its darling, then spat him out for failing to keep up appearances, Wilde was no cynic. A romantic idealist in his passions and a complex moralist, like many marginalized figures he held tolerance sacred, scorning the hypocrisy of would-be saints only slightly less than that of accredited cads. That is the subject of An Ideal Husband, a morality play which, notwithstanding a certain transparency, abounds with sufficient wisdom and verve to survive even a thorough flattening from British director Oliver Parker.

Not content with the difficult feat of dulling down Othello, Parker has boiled An Ideal Husband into a thuddingly unimaginative costume drama laden with frocks, riding crops, servile butlers and very good actors desperately treading water. It takes a valiant effort indeed to wring a bad performance from Cate Blanchett: As Lady Gertrude Chiltern, a fin-de-siècle society matron and liberal feminist, Blanchett is so woodenly schoolmarmish you half expect her to rise into the ether, clutching an umbrella and singing of spoonsful of sugar. Gertrude is Wilde's frontwoman for the tyranny of rigidly applied principles. Her decent, priggish heart leads her to hold her husband, Robert (Jeremy Northam, hunky with a dash of stuffed shirt), a successful politician eyeing a cabinet position, to standards of conduct his checkered secret history can't sustain. Skeletons march obligingly out of closets when a sexy, nasty blast from the Chilterns' past, the fortune-hunting investor Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore, enunciating madly in breathy Thatcherite gasps), shows up to blackmail them both into a corner from which only Sir Robert's old friend Lord Goring (Rupert Everett), a party-loving slacker who flees from commitment as a fox runs from the hounds, can spring them.

And spring the movie from its deep slumber. An actor with elastic range who's levering himself out of the B-list by stealing indifferent movies from under the noses of megastars (My Best Friend's Wedding, A Midsummer Night's Dream), Everett laces the charm of a Rock Hudson with an enticing touch of evil, not to mention a rippling upper torso that makes a regular cameo appearance in his movies. One curl of Goring's lip conveys a practiced insolence that beats Mrs. Cheveley at her own game; one flash of his intent dark eyes sends Miss Mabel (Minnie Driver) into meltdown. (It's a pity that Driver, who has skinnied down and perked up to meet Hollywood starlet regulations -- one longs for the chubby ball of fire she played in Circle of Friends -- can't hold her own with Everett's romantic lead.)

Goring is an amusing blend of Wilde himself and all the callow, worldly young men whom the playwright knowingly allowed to exploit him, a layabout who in the end reluctantly achieves Wilde's own romance of self-sacrifice when he moves in to save the Chilterns from ruin and -- more pertinently -- from themselves. He's a walking embodiment of Wilde's critical distinction between morality and moralizing, and, as interpreted by Everett, the lone bright spark in this inert movie, much of which takes place in hushed, polite whispers, as if the cast were rehearsing in a sick aunt's bedroom. Parker has tinkered enough with the play to wink coyly at its contemporary relevance to the Bill and Hillary show. And though the parallel is a stretch (unless you cast Clinton as Mrs. Cheveley), we are at least led to wonder what Wilde would have thought of our royal couple. Wilde had good reason to respect fallibility, but he despised emotional swindlers and career manipulators who seek power for the sole purpose of grabbing more. For him, true nobility belonged to the tainted. In An Ideal Husband, honor goes to a self-confessed wastrel who fondly imagines he has dedicated his life to nothing, and is astonished to discover himself a mensch.

AN IDEAL HUSBAND | Adapted and directed by OLIVER PARKER | From the play by OSCAR WILDE | Produced by BARNABY THOMPSON and URI FRUCHTMANN | Released by Miramax Films | At Laemmle's Sunset 5, Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex and AMC Century City 14


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