An Ideal Husband is an idyllic sort of comedic period piece: witty, pristine, and mind-numbingly plush. Existing in a wasteland of aristocrats, courtesans, balls, and proposals, everything reeks of an exotic perfume that stinks of exquisite manners and spotless quips. It’s better to be a gentleman, to be a lady, than go by with outspokenness. To skirt around an issue for the objective of sounding polite is a must; to be blunt and hasty in one’s choice of words is a no no.
Such entertainment, generally ball-busting and too well-groomed, can be tiresome; to see beautiful people put their societal standings first and their emotions second only causes one to want to pull their hair out as the plot stands still. But period pieces, especially those set in the 1800s, have a certain sort of charm about them — mannered sardonicism is endlessly watchable — and a film like An Ideal Husband, at once eclair-light and whip smart, is distinguished escapism, a politely droll holiday from the linguistic funeral marches of modern times. It’s an overture of dialogue.
Based on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name, the film is a comedy of manners coming apart at the seams. It finds its conflict through the possible downfall of parliamentary up-and-comer Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), who has built a career on unwaveringly ethical behavior but is suddenly sidelined by the arrival of a past scandal. Most would attempt to brush off such matters and bravely come clean, but considering that the need for societal respect in the 1800s is more important than raising happy children and the fact that all of Chiltern’s wealth is because of this corrupt event, its leakage could lead to explosive tragedy. The blackmailer, the eloquent Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore), delights in the idea of seeing Chiltern fail — and it doesn’t help that she is romantically interested in Chiltern’s best friend, Lord Goring (Rupert Everett), who is entering a serious courtship with Chiltern’s sister (Minnie Driver).
In retrospect, An Ideal Husband doesn’t seem to be about anything besides its dialogue. There's something overwhelmingly hypnotizing about watching the wealthy trade insults with the slippery poise of the narrator of biographical documentary. The relationships all appear flimsy (consider just how quickly Mabel and Goring fall for one another), and so do the motives of the characters. But An Ideal Husband gets away with its many areas of thinness because it presents everything in such a neatly witty package, bewitchingly engrossing and subtly rib-tickling.
The performers, even the villainous Moore, are mesmerizing, delivering their elegant lines like they really believe them. For a film that takes place in 1895, it’s enormously attractive. The period piece is a diverting escape, so long as you don’t overdose on all the bourgeoisie equanimity and keep your thoughts pure. A-