I found myself initially a bit confused about who was who in this film, but I liked it enough that I watched it twice and enjoyed it more the second time. It’s based on a lightweight Oscar Wilde play and the comedy is at times so understated that the funny bits can sneak past unnoticed if you’re not paying enough attention.
It’s the late 1890s and Jeremy Northam is a wealthy member of parliament universally admired for his integrity. His politically active wife, Cate Blanchett, adores him for it, because she values honesty above all. To her he’s an ideal husband, and he returns her love with equal intensity.
Northam’s best friend is Rupert Everett, who’s honest enough to declare himself the idlest man in London, a fact that irritates the dickens out of his father, a stodgy earl with a sense of noblesse oblige who serves in the government and wants his son to get married and makes something of himself. Everett finds the idea appalling.
Northam’s sister, Minnie Driver, is smart, sophisticated, and witty and yet likes Everett just as he is, except that she’s getting impatient for him to show some romantic interest in her.
Things are going along more or less smoothly until the recently widowed Julianne Moore arrives. She and Blanchett are former schoolmates but not friends, and she and Everett had years before been engaged for a few weeks until she learned that an even wealthier Austrian nobleman had come on the market. But it’s Northam she wants to see: Thanks to her late husband she has evidence of Northam’s one ethical lapse, news of which would ruin his career and his marriage should she divulge it. In return for her silence, she wants Northam to turn in a favorable report to the government on a crooked canal scheme he’s been asked to investigate, and in which she’s heavily invested.
The screenplay improves on Wilde’s original plot, which depended on a strained gimmick to save the day. There are implausibilities in the film as well, but they’re more tolerable.
The film also makes numerous in-joke references to Wilde’s other plays and personal life. At one point Everett wears a green carnation in his lapel, something that had been used by Wilde and others as a secret signal of their homosexuality. Everett himself happens to be gay.
Incidentally, Minnie Driver does a lot of over-the-top comic mugging in this film, but she gets away with it. Then again, I’m biased. I’d likely have found her charming if she made ugly faces at the camera and talked like Batman.