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Moore Isn't Less

[whitespace] An Ideal Husband

'An Ideal Husband' isn't an ideal movie--but, hey, it does have Julianne Moore

By Richard von Busack

Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband tells of Sir Robert (Jeremy Northam, of The Winslow Boy), a rising conservative star in the British government of 1895 who is blackmailed with purloined letters held by Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore). The lady knows how, in his youth, Sir Robert leaked inside political information that made his patron rich. The fact that Sir Robert's lived a blameless life ever since makes no difference; his wife Gertrude (Cate Blanchett), who adores him, will be badly disillusioned if she learns about his tinged past. And a scandal will destroy his political hopes. The comic relief to this drama is the tale of "the idlest man in London," Lord Goring (Rupert Everett), a playboy pressured by both his father and his girlfriend (Minnie Driver) into marriage.

I'm not sure how one goes about "adapting" Oscar Wilde. Consider the best movie of any of Wilde's plays: Anthony Asquith's 1952 The Importance of Being Earnest, which recently played at the SF International Film Festival, and which is as artificial as an $8 dessert. The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the most stagy films of the sound era, and yet it doesn't matter, because of the extraordinary cast--including Joan Greenwood, honey-voiced as Gwendolyn, and Margaret Rutherford as the forgetful baby sitter and novelist manqué Miss Prism. Sometimes film directors forget that the preservation of a memorable theatrical performance might be an end in itself. Unfortunately, like the anemic The Winslow Boy, this Wilde play has just been opened up, and resold with hints that it has something to do with Zippergate.

It's far from an ideal movie, An Ideal Husband, and the direction is squarely to blame. Director Oliver Parker previously made an indifferent adaptation of Othello. (Remember? Lawrence Fishburne tangling with Shakespearean English, Irene Jacob tangling with English itself, and Kenneth Branagh's devil Iago taking the hindmost.) In modernizing Wilde, Parker has sweetened the epigrams, hinting that these people are old Victorian dears who really don't mean what they're saying. The art direction and costumes are worth seeing, if you're the kind of viewer who goes to see a movie for art direction and costumes. But this exhausted adaptation begins with a butler drawing open curtains and ends with peals of tortured stage laughter. Despite it all, there's one smooth minx aboard: Julianne Moore as Mrs. Cheveley, with her infuriating half-smile, buttery syllables and cool schemes. Over the last few years, I've seen Moore in science fiction (Safe) monster-horror (The Lost World), comedy (The Big Lebowski), marital drama (Short Cuts) . . . she's a Mata Hari here, and her part follows on the heels of one of her most recent roles, as a believable, tough little punkette in the 1998 Psycho. I think Moore is the most versatile movie actress since Barbara Stanwyck.

An Ideal Husband (PG-13; 96 min.) written and directed by Oliver Parker, based on a work by Oscar Wilde, photographed by David Johnson and starring Jeremy Northam, Cate Blanchett, Rupert Everett, Minnie Driver and Julianne Moore.

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Web extra to the June 24-30, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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