[Deep Focus]
An idle bachelor

Screenwriter/director Oliver Parker translates Oscar Wilde's romantic comedy for a contemporary audience, leaving most of the wit intact, jettisoning some ballast, and knowing when to get the hell out of the way and let his actors do their thing.

This is a story about how hard it is to play it straight with one another, and what happens when we don't. It's also a paean to romantic love, with a keen eye for the way married people (and potential mates) see one another, and what happens when they're forced to reevaluate. Only during the final reel, when the players and the camera are suddenly afflicted with a bad case of the cutesies, does this highly entertaining film feel out of balance.

Rupert Everett takes the screen in grand style as Lord Arthur Goring, rolling Wilde's trademark witticisms off his tongue like they come naturally and evincing enough flippant sincerity and eligible bachelor-ness to conquer every heart in the place. (If this guy ever gets his gay secret agent project off the ground, it's gonna be a hoot.) Goring, who seems at first glance to be an inveterate rogue, was nearly made into a husband by Lady Gertrud, played with radiant precision by Cate Blanchett. Gertrud is now the adoring wife of Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), an up-and-coming politician with a black secret in his past. Enter Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore), a scheming out-of-towner who has the goods on Sir Robert and aims to blackmail him into public support of a dodgy Argentine canal project in which she has invested a considerable sum of money. Minnie Driver is somewhere in the background for most of this, mugging and gasping for attention as Sir Robert's sister.

At times, this becomes The Cate Blanchett/Rupert Everett Show, which is reason enough to shell out for a screening. I've come to believe that just the name "Rupert Everett" on a marquee makes a film worth a look. (OK, we'll see about that when Inspector Gadget comes out.)

Jeremy Northam holds his own in what becomes a surprisingly secondary role, but when it comes time for Driver to move to the fore, she just can't keep up. Put her next to Blanchett for an object lesson in acting style. Driver is fully articulated, using her eyes, her mouth, and every muscle on her face to convey a mood -- in short, she moves like Jar-Jar Binks. She's used this attack to good comic effect, but she's out of her league here. Blanchett, meanwhile, is just several different kinds of wonderful, her tricks no less precise but yet so subtle that she gives an illusion of becoming the person rather than just the character. Next to the solemn gravity of her final scenes in Elizabeth, of course, this is run-of-the-mill stuff. But she helps make this material as good as it possibly can be.

Julianne Moore is another story, her calculated coquettishness being the next best thing, I suppose, to an outright snarl. She's good-looking and eminently watchable, but also overly mannered. Watching her here, I kept flashing back to her squinty performance in Boogie Nights. Her Mrs. Cheveley is somewhat appealing, but perhaps a little too irritating.

Finally, however, the performances do carry the day. Although An Ideal Husband comes unraveled in the course of tying up its own myriad loose ends, the bulk of the film is a pleasurable lark. Miramax's decision to release it as summer counter-programming is a sound strategy -- this is the costume-picture equivalent of a popcorn movie.

Written for the screen and directed by Oliver Parker
Based on the play by Oscar Wilde
Cinematography by David Johnson
Edited by Guy Bensley
Starring Rupert Everett, Cate Blanchett, Jeremy Northam,
Julianne Moore, and Minnie Driver

Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1

France/U.S./U.K., 1999

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DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer