When Oscar Wilde quipped that all of us were in the gutter but some of us were looking at the stars, he may have been right. But he wasn't talking about himself.
In fact, his chief delight, and the chief delight of Oliver Parker's clever, streamlined film version of Wilde's play "An Ideal Husband," is how avidly both have looked into the gutter and what jolly fun they found there.
The gutter, in the film, is reform politics, and Washington practitioners of that sanctimonious racket are advised to take these lessons to heart. Oh, wait: They don't have hearts. But let's pretend they do. Maybe they'll see the film, and a miracle will ensue. The clamor of the town's demagoguery will be tastefully modulated, if only a bit.
In any event, Wilde's play is built on a zesty, effective little model. He begins with quick portraits of two men, friends yet opposites. One is the very paragon of a high reformer: moral, decent, beloved in his party, married, loyal, earnest, possibly dull. The other is a handsome, languid sensualist and reprobate--catnip to women. He has ideals, too; for example, he might ponder the ideal wine to serve with the pate. Yet by the end, both men are close to a reversed position: One has nearly fallen, while the other has almost risen.
Set in vividly evoked belle epoque London, the film begins tracking the seemingly upward arc of Sir Robert Chiltern--foursquare Jeremy Northam--who is a go-getter, a do-gooder and a can't-waiter. Married to the glorious Gertrude (Cate Blanchett), he's about to issue a report to Parliament on an overseas canal proposal.
At a key moment, who should swim into view from the muck of decadent Europe but the beautiful Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore), who knows more about Sir Robert than Sir Robert cares to admit. A years-ago dalliance, perchance? It soon turns out that Mrs. Cheveley does indeed know something about Chiltern: the scandalous secret of his career. And that secret might be useful leverage in persuading him to issue a favorable report on the canal venture, in which she has stock and whose other speculators she represents.
Thus does Sir Robert turn to his friend Lord Goring (Rupert Everett) to sort things out and retrieve a certain letter, the evidence of the indiscretion. Goring leaps at the chance; that is, he leaps once he can persuade himself to be bestirred from the cozy pleasures of his smoking jacket, his slippers, his brandies and last night's trollop.
Everett is so fabulous that one suspects he was born to play Wilde; he's the perfect Wilde man. In fact, you further suspect that in Wilde's heart of hearts or id of ids, he dreamed of an Everett as an ideal of a different sort than a husband. Everett has that fascinating quality of blur that so many gay stars have, out of the closet or not. The camera sees the Hudson-handsome profile, rock-solid on a compass setting of True Duty, suitable for playing presidents or generals. But underneath, the camera detects (or is allowed to detect) a sense of subversive mischief in the eyes, a high irony in the carriage, an awareness of the secret self and a pride in the cleverness of the game being played. This charm is well used in the film, especially since in the role of a dull man, Northam is dull. But that's all right, since Blanchett is dull, too.
You can sense Wilde's fondness for flamboyant bounders, cads and con men as opposed to the stiff-lipped late Victorian imperial stalwarts that his age declared heroic. He has no patience for Queen Vickie's visionaries or red-coated Maxim gunners of natives, choosing instead as his heroes the sly, lounging, silken, wit-armed quip-slingers of the salon frontier. That is, choosing himself.
For that reason, Everett's Goring dominates the film with his wickedness. And, in the same vein, Moore has a great time with the cagey, cunning, WASPish Mrs. Cheveley. What a formidable piece of work is she. Beautiful and smart and witty, she is secretly as remorseless in her way as Hannibal Lecter in search of new organs to prepare with garlic butter and rare wines. You wouldn't want to argue with her about 11 cents on your expense account, let me tell you.
The core of the play is basically farce. Parker stays with and even streamlines Wilde's clever manipulations of betrayals and lies and plots and counterplots. Yet the film never feels stagy. And through the naturalness of the actors, the Wilde witticisms seem spontaneously rooted in character, not epigrams preserved in amber.
Parker has also added a kind of postmodern level that yields its own share of laughs. For one thing, the film is set in a late-century London that is different from Wilde's late-century London but like the real late-century London: This one has Oscar Wilde in it, and one of the plays in the swirly social background is Wilde's. And Wilde himself (played by Michael Culkin) goes onstage and issues some treasured Wildeisms.
Then there's the issue of Mr. Whistler's new painting "Arrangement in Grey and Black," which Gertrude and Chiltern's sister Mabel (Minnie Driver) see, but we don't. Their huffy judgment of the Yank's daubing: "Won't last." And it didn't, until people began to call it not by its title but by its subject, which happened to be Mr. Whistler's mother.
So "An Ideal Husband" is a delicious oddity: It looks back with fondness to the last century's greatest wit while finding a thoroughly modernist sensibility. In Wilde's own terminology, it's the opposite of a cynic's exercise: It cares about the cost of nothing and the value of everything.
An Ideal Husband (97 minutes, at the Odeon Avalon 7 and Shirlington 7) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo beyond the comprehension of most teenagers.
CAPTION: Cate Blanchett puts a high gloss on dullness in this take on Oscar Wilde's play.
CAPTION: Minnie Driver in "An Ideal Husband": Pitting Victorian propriety against the silken pleasures of life on the salon frontier.