First performed in 1895, the year of Oscar Wilde's imprisonment, An Ideal Husband is the subject of two compelling movie versions this year. Later in '99 there'll be a low-budget, all-British effort set in contemporary England, but first off is this lavish, Anglo-American, period co-production with an international cast.
What seems to have attracted both sets of film-makers is that Wilde's themes are so relevant today. Written when Wilde himself was suffering persecution, An Ideal Husband emerges here as a drama about a political scandal; as a plea for tolerance towards infallibility and human imperfection; and as a warning against our habitual tendency to idealise our partners. Director and screenwriter Oliver Parker (Othello) has attempted to open up the text by including a number of scenes such as the ride in Hyde Park, the theatre trip and the crucial House Of Commons debate - that are only fleetingly referred to in the play. Yet despite these touches, An Ideal Husband can't seem to escape from its stage-bound origins.
In its favour, the dialogue is genuinely witty ("Morality is the attitude we adopt to people whom we don't like," quips one character); Michael Howells' production designs are suitably elegant; and there's a brace of excellent performances, in particular a suave and amusing Everett, and an agreeably duplicitous and alluring Moore.
However, it takes no unexpected risks nor goes off in unusual directions, unlike such stage-to-screen adaptations as Baz Luhrmann's gun-toting, pill-necking Romeo & Juliet. Right down to the camera set-ups and the editing style, An Ideal Husband is overly safe and predictable film-making. Oscar himself would not have approved of such timidity.
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This is a slavishly faithful period adaptation, whose strengths lie in the sparkling dialogue and a string of polished performances. But the film-makers have failed to provide the necessary cinematic inspiration to turn it into anything other than a filmed play.