A Good Woman (Lion’s Gate Films, PG)

Though the film departs from the specifics of Lady Windermere’s Fan, the play upon which it is based, it succeeds in showcasing Wilde’s masterful wit through the repartee of the clubby holidaymakers.

 

 

A Good Woman, a bedroom farce based on a play by Oscar Wilde, sparkles with the old money and sophisticated wit that was, in Wilde’s estimation, the birthright of English high society. Scarlett Johansson plays Meg, a young American vacationing with her new British husband, Lord Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers), along with a group of upper crust Englishmen, at the seaside resort of Amalfi. It’s 1930, and Meg’s sweetly puritanical ways stand in contrast to her urbane English companions, who pass their time exchanging bon mots over drinks and luncheons as they amuse themselves with the usual pastimes of the idle: flirtations and gossip. With the arrival of newcomer Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt), the English coterie is soon abuzz with rumors, started by a quidnunc contessa and her Nosy Parker daughter, linking Robert to the new arrival. Mrs. Erlynne has a reputation for making a living by pleasing men while displeasing their wives, and has arrived on the sunny shores of Italy to cast a net for her next benefactor. While Robert begins paying clandestine visits and large sums of money to Mrs. Erlynne, playboy Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore) seeks to woo the pure-hearted Meg, whose faith in her husband’s fidelity begins to crumble under the weight of the rumors about his behavior.

Though the film departs from the specifics of Lady Windermere’s Fan, the play upon which it is based, it succeeds in showcasing Wilde’s masterful wit through the repartee of the clubby holidaymakers. But while it has a certain refined charm, the movie never manages to overcome its one fatal flaw: bad casting. Johansson tries to tone down the latent sexuality that has made her, along with her trademark pouty lips, Hollywood’s new darling, but the result is a cardboard performance from someone with proven talent. The more egregious error, though, is choosing Hunt for the role of femme fatale. Hunt, who has been curiously absent from the big screen for the past several years, has made a long career playing sweet, down-to-earth characters. One can easily picture her as a best friend, a next-door neighbor, a soul mate, or a sister-in-law—not, however, a cold-hearted international courtesan. Hunt, apparently, just can’t help playing the part with her usual kindly demeanor—along with the 1990s practice of displaying an open-minded earnestness by inflecting the end? of each? phrase? While this sincerity plays well for most of her previous parts, it leaves the audience wondering, in the end, how such a nice person could be the cause of such a scandal.

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