The 1999 production of An Ideal Husband is a good example of what is right and wrong with contemporary British costume films. Start with a “high culture” subject, in this case a play by Oscar Wilde. Hire a top-notch cast and first-rate technicians. Produce on a lavish scale so that every square centimeter is crammed with period details. Encourage the actors to speak with exquisite elocution so precise that it verges on painful, while making certain that they are always photographed at their best. In this exaggeratedly manicured environment, if a hair is out of place, it is meant to be.
The results are almost guaranteed to entertain, but they are also equally certain to fall short of being a movie that stands on its own. Moreover, attractive as it may be, the glitter of these posh productions can border on the offensive if you have different values or if standards change. Like a good bottle of wine, the appeal can easily sour over time.
I enjoyed Husband in its theatrical release and purchased a copy shortly afterward, although even then I thought it was a touch over-done. Eighteen years and countless calamities later, it is hard not to view the combination of preening perfection and Wilde’s arch witticisms as more than a touch smug. Rupert Everett as the wastrel Lord Goring is clearly calculated to be charming, and perhaps he was in the optimistic ’90s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to foretell a future as one big, prosperous party. Today, his self-congratulatory performance annoys as much it entertains, while the rest of the actors (aside from Julianne Moore, as the villainous Mrs. Cheveley) feel more like tailors’ dummies than characters.
The over-the-top settings are lit to show off everything, and the designers rise to the occasion to remind us constantly that this is 1895 Britain. Not 1894, mind you, or 1896, but 1895. In such literal-minded, almost pedantic archaeological reconstruction, no detail is too trivial to include, whether it is the angle of Goring’s boutonniere, or the dainty cordial glasses held just so, or a quick side trip through a teeming back alley, or the horse manure in the streets perfectly placed for us to see it. Unfortunately, this thorough saturation with the gratuitous has the effect of making everything decorative, including poverty. The past becomes an agglomeration of disembodied things.
Fashion shows, museum tours and curio cabinets have their appeal, of course, and to be sure, Husband is superbly mounted. No one could accuse the filmmakers of providing anything less than their best. For all the ostentatious care and no doubt exhaustive research lavished on the settings, however, you cannot imagine anyone living in them; they’re too meticulously embalmed. The varnished period recreation is ultimately what the film is about, and what we are likeliest to remember. As Wilde might have put it, what is most important in productions like An Ideal Husband is what is least important.