To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance," ultrarich bachelor Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett) tells his alternately bemused and befuddled butler near the beginning of "An Ideal Husband," director Oliver Parker's pleasantly diverting adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play. Goring, a dashing chap with plenty of wit to spill and free time to kill in London during the late 1800s, isn't exactly the portrait of the perfect mate as a young man. He's far too mesmerized by his own charm and duly impressed with its effect on the fairer sex.
Nor is his best friend Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam), a rising-star member of Parliament, precisely what he seems on the surface. Chiltern has a reputation as the rare professional politician with a conscience and a penchant for honesty, and he's much revered by his public and his adoring wife, Gertrude (Cate Blanchett).
But Mrs. Cheveley (Julianne Moore), a saucy power-tripper from Vienna with school ties to Arthur and Gertrude, threatens to reveal the skeletons in Chiltern's closet. "I know the real origin of your wealth and your career," Cheveley tells the politician, who is preparing to vote on a matter that will directly affect Cheveley's investments. "You would be hounded out of public life."
"Ideal" might be a fair assessment of the manner in which various secrets, lies and matters of the heart are unraveled during Parker's handsomely photographed, romantic and often witty film. It's packed with pungent one-liners delivered with impeccable timing by the adroitly cast Everett and his co-stars, particularly Minnie Driver as Robert's free-spirited sister Mabel.
"An Ideal Husband," though, is a kinder, more genteel period piece about the release of requited and unrequited passions than other efforts of its ilk. Unexpected twists and turns abound, with the guilty and the innocent regularly trading places, but there's none of the bile or cruelty expressed in such movies as 1988's "Dangerous Liaisons" or "Cruel Intentions," the recent teenybopper update of the Pierre Laclos novel.
Goring may be an aimless slacker, but it's sheer pleasure watching the guy rib his uptight father, Lord Caversham (John Wood), a model citizen whose greatest hope is to see his son find a bride, and soon. The good-natured verbal tomfoolery provides a vehicle for Wilde's own pointed social criticism -- observations about corruption and pride that aren't dated in the least.
Deceptions and misunderstandings pile up dangerously near the conclusion, conflicting parties show up in the same household, and Chiltern's rousing speech before Parliament is followed by even more startling revelations. Still, love reigns over all at the conclusion, and perhaps that's the sole flaw of "An Ideal Husband": The loose ends are tied up a little too neatly, and happy unions and reunions rule the day. It's the film's least predictable attribute.