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A prominent politician is preparing to expose a financial scandal. But then a woman who has invested heavily in the shady venture threatens to uncover a damaging secret in the politician's past if he exposes the speculation as a fraud. His problem is compounded by his wife's intolerance of the slightest character flaws. Written by
Oscar Wilde is often thought of as a primarily comic playwright, but of his seven completed plays only one, "The Importance of Being Earnest" is a pure comedy. Three other plays are sometimes bracketed with it as "drawing-room comedies", but all three are in many ways problem plays, combining plenty of witty dialogue with serious examination of social issues. In "Lady Windermere's Fan" and "A Woman of No Importance" these are questions of sexual morality, whereas "An Ideal Husband" revolves around political corruption, questions of honour, and the relationship between the sexes.
"An Ideal Husband" has been filmed four times. There were two separate adaptations in the late nineties, made only a year apart, but, oddly, the first version was made in Germany in 1935. Given the Nazi detestation of homosexuality, it seems strange that they should have chosen to film a work by a famously gay author. This 1947 version, however, is the only one I have seen. It is an early example of the British "heritage cinema" style, being made in colour, which was still the exception rather than the rule in the British cinema of the forties, and featuring the lavish period sets and costumes which were later to become the hallmark of films set in the Victorian era.
The action is set in London in 1895. Sir Robert Chiltern, a wealthy and successful politician, is approached at a party one evening by a mysterious woman named Mrs. Cheveley, who attempts to blackmail him to support a fraudulent scheme in which she has invested. She says that she knows, and can prove, that earlier in his career he was guilty of selling a state secret for money, and threatens him with exposure unless he makes a speech to the House of Commons recommending that the British Government support her scheme. The film then explores the complications which arise from this and Mrs Cheveley's other machinations.
Two key characters are Sir Robert's wife Gertrude and his closest friend Lord Arthur Goring. At first Goring seems to one of Wilde's witty but foppish young men, a gilded dandy whose main talent is for uttering bons mots like "Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not", but in the end he proves to be a loyal and resourceful friend to Sir Robert. Gertrude Chiltern is high-minded and idealistic, but can be inflexible and unforgiving; she finds it difficult to make allowances for those, even her husband, whose moral principles are not as rigid as her own. The need to atone for one's past misdeeds, and the need to allow others to atone for theirs, is one of the key themes of the play. "No one should be entirely judged by their past." Although "An Ideal Husband" does not directly address the question of sexual morality, it does have some relevance to Wilde's own situation. Like Sir Robert, he was hiding what late Victorian society would have considered a guilty secret.
There are good contributions from Hugh Williams as Sir Robert, Diana Wynyard as Gertrude and Paulette Goddard as Mrs Cheveley, who here becomes an American who has kept her accept despite her English education. (We learn that she was s schoolmate of Gertrude Chiltern). Doubtless the film-makers wanted to create a role for a major American star. There is a particularly good performance from Michael Wilding as Goring, which is not an easy role to play. On the one hand the actor's performance must be light and elegant enough to convey Goring's facade of the cynically witty boulevardier. On the other, it must also be substantial enough to suggest the decent man of principle and devoted friend who lurks beneath that facade, and Wilding is able to bring off this difficult double. Wilding may be best remembered today as one of Liz Taylor's many husbands, but in the forties and fifties he was an established star of the British cinema and of Hollywood. He was also a versatile actor; another role in which he was excellent was that of the Pharaoh Akhenaton in "The Egyptian", a character about as different from Goring as one could imagine.
The film closely follows the plot of Wilde's play and keeps the original setting. (One difference is that the scene in the House of Commons is actually shown; in the play we merely hear about it at second hand). I think that this was the right decision as the details of Wilde's plots are often specific to late Victorian times and attempts to update them can fall flat. An example is the recent "A Good Woman", an adaptation of "Lady Windermere's Fan", which makes the main characters American rather than British and transfers the action to 1930s Italy. In my view this film does not really succeed, and an important reason for this is that the film-makers never seem to have taken into account the fact that the world had changed in the four decades between the 1890s and the 1930s.
If one looks at the wider themes of Wilde's plays rather than the details, however, they can be seen to touch on many topics of timeless relevance to modern times. This was true of the 1940s and remains true today; the theme of political corruption, for example, seems particularly relevant today in the wake of the MPs' expenses scandal. Even more important is what he has to say about love: - "It is not the perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love. It is when we are wounded by our own hands, or by the hands of others, that love should come to cure us else what use is love at all"? The combination of wit with a serious discussion of important topics is what makes Wilde's "drawing-room" plays so compelling, and this version of "An Ideal Husband" is an excellent adaptation of a great play. 8/10
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