AS HE rides in a carriage with his father, the handsome, dapper Arthur Goring, a k a Lord Goring, lays down the law.

He speaks only of serious matters on the first Tuesday of the month between noon and 3. So there'll be no talk of his continued resistance to marriage and respectability. Nor should his father mention his true age of 36, since he only admits to 32.

This is England, at the turn of the century. The 20th century, that is. Lord Goring (Rupert Everett) is a ladies' man par excellence. (Hey, no giggling please.) Politics bore him. Parties excite him. He thrives in a world of genteel superficiality. Why spoil things by getting married?

We are watching "An Ideal Husband," very loosely based on the Oscar Wilde play, and frankly we are amused. We are not sputtering into our teacups, but we are chortling lightly.

The dandyish, insouciant Lord Goring's idle days are numbered. When his dear friend, Sir Robert (Jeremy Northam) asks for his assistance in a highly delicate matter, Lord Goring's role becomes the central trouble-shooter in this comedy of manners, politics, treachery, misunderstanding and blackmail.

Blackmail? Among England's horse-and-carriage set? Yes, dear reader. In writer/director Oliver Parker's movie, the old world of British politics turns amusingly timely.

After all, Sir Robert's standing as a politician and an ideal husband -- especially in the eyes of his devoted wife, Lady Chiltern (Cate Blanchett) -- becomes potentially compromised when a past mistake catches up with him.

It seems a certain Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore) has given Sir Robert a devastating ultimatum. If he does not speak in favor of a certain waterway project in Argentina, she'll have to sing like a bird to the newspapers about that time he passed on key information about the upcoming Suez Canal to a German count who then made much money on the project.

It doesn't help matters that Sir Robert has already publicly denounced Lady Cheveley's Argentina scheme as a scam.

It seems Sir Robert and Lord Goring have no way out. Sir Robert faces the prospect of Lady Chiltern's emotional devastation and a public humiliation. And partygoer Lord Goring is suddenly faced with . . . hard, selfless work. Additionally, Sir Robert's sister (Minnie Driver) has been pestering the playboy for a romantic commitment. How cruel life can be.

Wilde aficionados will not be amused to learn that Parker (who directed Laurence Fishburne in the somewhat disappointing "Othello") has significantly reordered the Wilde play, including fuller treatments of each character. A case in point is Minnie Driver's Mabel Chiltern, who gets a much more spirited run here than in the original tome. But there is something Wilde about the film, in the sense that nobody escapes moral scrutiny, and no one is judged completely wonderful or downright bad. Lady Chiltern's perfections, for instance, will come up short over the course of the movie; and Mrs. Cheveley will prove to have something of a heart in that scheming body.

We also get a smattering of choice Wilde witticisms. "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance," says Lord Goring at the beginning of the film. If the spirit of Wilde has been purged in places, we do have the pleasure of strong performances from everyone, particularly Blanchett and Northam, who make their relationship seem essential and definitely worth preserving. And looking around at the choices this weekend, "An Ideal Husband" is clearly the only party to attend.

AN IDEAL HUSBAND (PG-13, 98 minutes) -- Contains mild sexual implications. At the Cineplex Odeon Avalon 2 and Shirlington 7.

CAPTION: Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver and Rupert Everett are dandy in "An Ideal Husband."