Films about English high society at the turn of the 20th century are always welcomed by the American public who are inclined to feel smug at viewing the overly polite and hypocritical demeanor of the English who would probably not behave so strictly if no one were watching.
Oscar Wilde Portrait by Napoleon Sarony - Wikimedia
“An Ideal Husband” was written by Oscar Wilde in 1895 and reflects the tenor of the times in that country. An interesting sidebar was inserted into the film in its early stages, showing an audience attending Oscar Wilde’s other very famous play “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The audience cried out for the author at the play’s ending, and Oscar Wilde (portrayed by Michael Culkin) came on stage and addressed the audience. This minor incident might have been overlooked by the viewer except that one of the actors on stage spoke about “the importance of being earnest.”
A marvelous cast prevented this film from droning on endlessly. Rupert Everett, Minnie Driver, Cate Blanchett, Julianne More and Jeremy Northam were a brilliant ensemble aided by impeccable wardrobes of the period which captured this viewer’s fancy, wanting to see more.
Julianne Moore - Wikimedia
The Chilterns are Highly Respected
Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) and his wife, Lady Gertrude (Cate Blanchett), are highly respected in the community. Sir Robert is a member of the House of Commons and is known and loved for his integrity, honesty, and high ideals. Lady Gertrude also values these traits in her husband, knowing that their impeccable reputation in the community is their most valued asset.
Sir Robert’s close friend, Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett), was a wealthy bachelor who enjoyed the attention of several women who would love to become Lady Goring. Arthur’s father, Lord Caversham (John Wood), is not happy about his son’s idle lifestyle and urges him to find a wife, and soon. Sir Robert’s sister Mabel (Minnie Driver) has caught Arthur’s eye, yet he is not yet ready to give up his single existence to settle down.
Cate Blanchett - Wikimedia
Enter Mrs. Cheveley
Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude hosted a grand party in the opening scenes, where the more illustrious citizens of that day were seen passing through. One invitee was Mrs. Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore), whose second husband, the well-known Baron Arnheim, had passed away. Juliette Moore, by the way, was nominated for a Golden Globe for her superb performance in “An Ideal Husband.” She truly stole the show. Her co-star, Rupert Everett, was also nominated for a Golden Globe. The casting of these two in their respective roles was totally brilliant.
We could say that all hell broke loose when Mrs. Cheveley accepted the invitation from the Chilterns. She and Lady Gertrude Chiltern had been classmates years before, and each admitted to disliking the other intensely. Mrs. Cheveley asked Sir Robert if she could have a word with him apart from the other guests, and they withdrew to a drawing room. Mrs. Cheveley asked Sir Robert about the proposal for an Argentine Canal which was to be decided upon by the House of Commons very shortly. Sir Robert related that he would be giving the report of his findings to the House on the coming Thursday. He said that he intended to condemn the scheme in no uncertain terms. He considered it a stock exchange swindle. Mrs. Cheveley asked him to amend the report he planned to give for which she would pay him liberally. She had taken the advice of her late husband, Baron Arnheim, and had invested heavily in the project and did not want to lose what she had put into this venture.
Rupert Everett - Wikimedia
Sir Robert’s Youthful Error
Sir Robert reminded Mrs. Cheveley that she was speaking to an English gentleman and that he had principles. Mrs. Cheveley told him that she was aware of the origin of his wealth and his career and was in possession of a letter from him to the Baron which would destroy his career if the newspapers knew about it. She offered to give him the letter in return for his support.
The facts that Mrs. Cheveley referenced came out slowly in conversations throughout the film. Apparently, when the highly honest Sir Robert Chiltern was a neophyte in his career, he had written to Baron Arnheim disclosing secret stock information regarding the purchase of the Suez Canal. The Baron made 750,000 pounds after receiving this information, and Sir Robert received from him 110,000 pounds for his collaboration. The compromising letter was now in Mrs. Cheveley’s possession.
When Sir Robert did not give into her bribery offer, Mrs. Cheveley paid a visit to his wife, Lady Gertrude, and indicated to her that her husband was not the upright official he claimed to be. Gertrude confronted her husband who was forced to let her in on the scenario. Since Gertrude’s love for Sir Robert was somewhat conditional on his spotless reputation, he knew he would have to leave.
Minnie Driver - Wikimedia
Sir Arthur Goring had considered himself an equal friend to both Sir Robert and his wife, Gertrude. In an earlier conversation with Gertrude, knowing of Robert’s dilemma, Arthur told Gertrude if she ever needed to talk with him, he would come immediately. After the breakup, Gertrude wrote a letter to Arthur which stated: “When you left this afternoon, my life fell apart. I need you. I am coming to you now. Gertrude.” Unfortunately, the letter fell into the hands of Mrs. Cheveley when she paid Arthur a visit. She had it delivered to Sir Robert, who then believed that his wife and Arthur were having an affair. Fortunately, this ruse did not work out as planned, as Arthur, Gertrude, and Mabel conspired to state that the letter was intended for Sir Robert as a plea from Gertrude to reconcile. Let it be stated that the true state of affairs was known by all the participants by the time the curtain rang down.
It might be added that that Arthur and Mabel made some headway in their relationship when Arthur feared that a competitor for Mabel’s affection was coming into prominence.
A few twists and turns brought us to the denouement, when Sir Robert was called upon to give his speech in the House of Commons with regard to the Argentine Canal Scheme. Oscar Wilde has a knack for keeping his audience in suspense, and this play was not an exception. The maze we were taken through is just as relevant today as it was at the turn of the 20th century.
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