Oscar Wilde is a name that can make people either smile or bristle. I tend to see him in the terms set by Peter Egan in “Lillie,” one of my all-time favorite BBC series. There he is witty, protective, and a bit insufferable -- not to say self-destructive. But in “An Ideal Husband” -- though he is shown as a real person (fat, preening, a bit of a freak) in a cameo of “The Importance of Being Earnest” onstage within the plot of the movie, he or someone projected by him is also in the character played by Rupert Everett, “Lord Goring”: extremely handsome in the faintest equine way (a very FINE high-stepping horse), at the peak of wit, covertly understanding and protective of friends, and not at all swish. He is portrayed as heterosexual, though the actor is gay, and entirely desirable regardless of preferences.
The plot itself is diagrammatic as a Shakespeare gender-switching comedy, though no one cross-dresses. The driving force is pairing everyone off, as the father of Lord Goring keeps urging, so the real conflict is between social requirements related to class and inheritance versus individual preference related to personality. One couple is irreproachably, enviably, unrealistically ideal -- so beautiful, rich, and virtuous as to arouse a desire to prick their balloon. This happens. (Cate Blanchett and Jeremy Northam take the roles gracefully.) The other couple is more of a trio: Lord Goring, his wicked but gorgeous former fiancee played by Julianne Moore, and Minnie Driver who is modern in her ability to face facts and cope with them.
The rest is all wit and farce -- not quite so broad as Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,” but still involving lots of cryptic messages susceptible to misinterpretation or destructive in their consequences if revealed. People come and go in small scenes, one quite charming in which Lord Goring finds himself deserted and must confide in a stoic marble bust of a Greek philosopher, and one remarkably touching when the Minnie Driver character, Mabel, and Lord Goring are suddenly, palpably, struck by love for each other while only passing as they have previously done before without impact.
This sort of wit is not hard to write once one grasps the principles. If accused of a vice, thank the accuser and accept the vice as though it were a virtue. Go for the double entendre, hopefully sexual or otherwise slightly improper. (Anyone who has taught junior high has accumulated lots of examples, though they tend to be a little TOO improper.) So Mabel says, “I think you must have been very badly raised!”
Goring agrees, “Oh, yes, I was. Very badly indeed.” Mabel suggests, “I wish I had been the one to raise you.”
Goring says, “Yes, I also wish that had been the case. Do you think it’s too late?” (I may not be quoting quite accurately.)
Much depends upon a slight and willful misinterpretation of what is said, or simply a misplaced concreteness as though a metaphor were meant to be a fact. Two things must be constantly observed by the actors: perfect enunciation so we don’t miss the words (though Rupert Everett says he took care to blunt the edges of some of the quips so as not to be too bitter) and absolute sincerity, so we stay conscious of the real human yearning just there under the surface. It is the brilliance of this production that now and then eyes tear up, fingertips linger, and we know that even the worst of these characters is longing for a desired outcome. Not just a bounce in bed, but security and protection in a harsh world to say nothing of joy. We can't help caring.
The settings are completely exploited for all the gorgeous excess of that particular world. The sumptuousness sometimes verges on the grotesque -- in the shadows lurk monstrous lamps and ugly swags of fringed brocade. The perfect couple has a perfectly palatial pale house but Lord Goring’s house seems to have many dark compartments with double doors. The conservatory is a veritable jungle. Colors are greener than green, redder than red -- impossibly saturated. Long wide staircases, couples whirling at a dance, and the obligatory parade on horseback in the park are all there. Somehow, Minnie Driver on horseback manages to make her breasts alternate in leaping according to her horse’s gait. Maybe riding sidesaddle does that.
So many of these terrific actors are familiar to us -- not just the leads but also the guests and such incidentals as the wonderful Peter Vaughn as Phipps, the oh-so-agreeable butler who -- but wait! Was he agreeing or was there an insult in there somewhere? And he’s not above preening in the mirror himself. Though he does mix up the ladies... It wasn’t his fault.
It’s not possible to rewrite this plotline as a contemporary story because we are so socially confused now (to say nothing of gender) and wealth is so little connected to conduct. Besides, I’m not sure people have the vocabulary, let alone the wardrobes.
But the main characteristic that seems to have disappeared is that of true human feeling, the constancy and idealism that shine through this sort of repartee, making it funny rather than either ridiculous or destructive. We’re having the same problem with our political season, it seems to me. Certainly, on the village level, stewardship seems quite replaced by cynicism and secrecy, which is evidently seen to be the only way to achieve economic success. It’s not just a loss of innocence, but also a loss of confidence in society. We don't care and we don't WANT to care.
The difference between this gilded age and the one in the movie might be that there is no longer any real stability even among the “upperest” classes and we think of our leaders and zillionaires with contempt and amusement. I cannot look at Ted Kennedy’s face without being bummed out by the memory of a paparazzi video of his bare buttocks going up and down while he lay on top of a woman in the bottom of a small boat. (I hope they properly bailed out the water first.) I don’t know where the censors get the idea that the sight of buttocks, even in such a situation, is naughty to the point of deserving incredibly steep fines. Even Oscar Wilde would be left speechless.