When the idea of adapting Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” for the screen was originally proposed to him, writer-director Oliver Parker, whose debut feature was the 1995 Laurence Fishburne-Kenneth Branagh adaptation of “Othello,” wasn’t enthusiastic.
“It was suggested to me by two friends for adaptation,” Parker, an ebullient man, explained in a recent Dallas conversation. “I knew the play and wasn’t sure about the idea, and I went to see the [1993 London] production, which was a Peter Hall production, and I still wasn’t sure about it. In fact, I thought it was quite a bad idea. It seemed to me so innately theatrical that I wasn’t sure how on earth you were going to rip it off the stage.”
“But,” he went on, “I was obviously hooked. The themes were obviously suitable, indeed strikingly contemporary. But I was a bit upset about some of the language and the formality–whether one could give that a sort of cinematic power. So I did a very quick draft…[and] began to realize how you could really give it that extra bit of naturalism without deserting its roots and style. And I took it a stage further in about five drafts in a row, experimenting a bit more each time. And it worked.”
“Part of the job,” he said, “was simply drawing back the veil to expose more of that compassion and humanity” that’s already present in the play, even if in “coded” form. “In a film, one is trying to tie it down more to an emotional reality” that lies beneath the play’s surface.
When the script was finished, it quickly attracted an outstanding cast. One of the main performers, however, was a last-minute addition. Originally Gabriel Byrne had been signed for the role of Sir Robert Chiltern, but when he had to withdraw, Jeremy Northam stepped in.
Parker is clearly pleased with the result, and was especially happy when mention was made of its energetic pace. “Yes, for me it’s more like a 1940s film,” he remarked, “a Preston Sturges-type movie, where people aren’t afraid to take it quickly.” One disappointment was that he hadn’t been able to get his brother, the actor Nathaniel Parker, into a cameo role. Nathaniel played Cassio in his adaptation of “Othello,” and Parker had hoped to use him in the insert from “The Importance of Being Earnest” in this film, but it hadn’t worked out.
Perhaps the brothers will reunite in one of the writer-director’s bewilderingly varied future prospects. One possibility is a filmization of “Earnest.” “I said I’d read it, and a couple of ideas came to me,” Parker noted. “It could be enormously funny, though you’d have to make some deft changes to make it matter emotionally.” That wouldn’t be his next project, however; he’s committed to doing a script by John Sayles, a historical whodunit about Orson Welles, of all people, playing detective to unmask a murderer while in Italy to shoot “Black Magic” in 1948. And an even more bizarre pospect is Parker’s hope to create a stage version of Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser.” (The horror writer is an old friend of Parker’s from their youthful days in a British theatre company.) “I have a desire to get a response out of a bloody theatre audience–to do something that’s more rousing and stirring” than the norm, Parker explained.
Nothing more likely to achieve such an aim could be imagined than a stage version of Barker’s grisly tale, already immortalized in the 1987 film written and directed by Barker himself (and including, in its cast, Oliver Parker as Moving Man #2). And nothing more unlike Parker’s current film could be imagined, either.