Published May 1, 1999
I hope it will not sound too relativistic of me to say that each age has its own moral needs. In the late Victorian era people needed to hear—though not nearly so much as they might have needed to hear a few years earlier or later—that mercy and forgiveness and forbearance to sinners was holy and virtuous. This is the moral necessity in an age of strict moral codes. “We have all of us feet of clay,” as Oscar Wilde says in An Ideal Husband, now brought to the silver screen over a hundred years later by Oliver Parker, who directed and wrote the screenplay from Wilde’s ever popular play. But we do not live in an age of stern moralism—except, of course, of the quasi-political kind which has moralized (or demoralized) our attachment to guns and cigarettes. Rather than needing to be told that we mustn’t be too harsh and unbending in our judgment of others, we need to be told that, occasionally, judging others just might be “appropriate.”
Thus it will give a modern audience a strange sensation to see the rigidly moralistic Lady Gertrude Chilton (Cate Blanchett) admit in front of her husband and sister-in-law, Mabel (Minnie Driver), and Mabel’s just accepted fiancé, Lord Goring (Rupert Everett), and Lord Goring’s father, Lord Caversham (John Wood) that she has lied and to see all the rest of those present—witty, clever and attractive people—applauding her. Ah yes! It was just this public admission of deceit which was wanted to make the good Lady Gertrude truly good. Now she’s just like the rest of us lying, deceitful buggers. Well, yes and no. Wilde’s own well-known moral lapses made him perhaps just a bit too eager to celebrate what was almost but not quite a Clintonian confession—that is, one which is its own absolution and which is something rather to be proud of than ashamed of.
The story, for those who may not know it, has to do with an attempt at blackmail by the charming but amoral Laura Cheevley (Julianne Moore), who knows that the fortune of Lady Chilton’s husband, Sir Robert (Jeremy Northam), was founded on a bit of insider trading which, if it came to light, would ruin him. If he does not use his position in the government to recommend officially an investment which he knows to be unsound but in which Mrs Cheevley holds a lot of stock, she will publicize his little secret. Will he have the character and the courage to resist this attempted blackmail, even though he fears worse than his impending public disgrace the likely eventuality that his wife, to whom he is devoted (as she is Cate Blanchett we can quite understand why), will never forgive him.
But as we have seen, Lady Chilton’s stern, unbending moralism must be qualified in the end by the consciousness that she, even she, has been guilty of deception. In her case, it is true, the deception is all but inadvertent, while her husband continues to profit by his. This seems to bother Wilde (or Parker) not at all and is treated as a youthful indiscretion for which there is now no remedy. When (as befits a comedy) a merry wager between Mrs Cheevley and Lord Goring as to the likely course of action of the upright Sir Robert results in the latter’s being spared the ruinous revelation, everyone including the lying and newly chastened Lady Chilton is quite happy to let this sleeping dog lie too.
True, Wilde is also hinting that Lady Chilton’s attachment to her husband and the life he has been able to provide for her is far more important to her than even she quite realizes. But he is also telling us that this is OK and no more than any of us would do in her place. That Sir Robert should continue to impose upon the public, even in the highest office in the land, seems self-evidently OK, so long as he can get away with it. Come to think of it, Wilde’s play so charmingly cast and photographed and performed as this version of it undoubtedly is really is a play for our Clintonian times.