A GOOD WOMANPG
Despite its wit and repartee, Lady Windermere's Fan isn't one of Oscar Wilde's notable comedies. For one thing, the playwright bolsters his premise, that morality can't be categorized into neat absolutes, with earnest speeches by his leading ladies, who are uncharacteristically charmless. For another, he burdens his plot with contrivances that, to pun on the title, just don't fan out.
These difficulties are exaggerated in the film adaptation, A Good Woman, written by Howard Himelstein and directed by Mike Barker. The movie takes a number of liberties with Wilde's play, starting with a change of location from gray London to the sunny Italian Riviera. It's a smart choice, allowing cinematographer Ben Seresin and production designer Ben Scott to entertain us with sumptuous color and light even as we cringe at the sound of the narrative wheels laboriously squeaking.
The plot of the play and film are similar but differ in detail. The pretty but puritanical Meg Windermere (Scarlett Johansson) and her entrepreneurial husband, Robert (Mark Umbers), have taken a villa on the Mediterranean for the season. Meg immediately commands the attentions of Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore), a notorious raconteur and rake who idles away his days and nights in the company of rich cronies, including Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson), more formally known as Lord Augustus. Tuppy, in turn, has his eye on an older but alluring beauty, Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt), who has arrived in Amalfi to find herself shunned because of her scandalous past.
When Meg plans a birthday bash for herself, Tuppy insists on inviting Mrs. Erlynne, to the consternation of Windermere, who is nuturing a secretive relationship with the woman. Darlington complicates matters by arranging for Meg to discover that her husband has been writing large checks to Mrs. Erlynne. It all ends in tears, with Meg throwing over Robert for Darlington and Tuppy throwing over Mrs. Erlynne, a less than madcap comedy of errors straightened out when everyone does the right thing, finally.
More so than Wilde's play, A Good Woman depends on an essential bit of withheld information that dictates the film's action. Himelstein and Barker lead the audience to believe that Windermere is a cad, for example, when in fact he's true blue, a narrative cheat that no amount of lush scenery and rich costumes can justify. Time and again, we are fooled to no good effect and, as a consequence, the characters cannot be true to themselves. Is Mrs. Erlynne an aging vamp, a con artist or a free spirit? This kind of confusion afflicts the entire cast.
At any rate, the role of Mrs. Erlynne, and that of Meg, are thankless ones, but Barker manages to make both actresses appear unattractive. Hunt delivers her lines in up-speak, as though she were an American coed on European tour, while Johansson pouts and kicks her legs like a schoolgirl. Thank goodness for Campbell Moore, who is forging a career playing thirties-something playboys. At least he looks the part and gamely delivers Wilde's familiar bons mots. The scenes between him, Wilkinson and their clubby buddies are the film's best, although two key speeches written for Hunt, significant diversions from the original play, are brave efforts by Himelstein to bring meaning to the adaptation.
Wilde often structured his plays to satisfy the requirements of well-made theatre, but he maintained an edge throughout, always looking for a chance to tweak conventional morality. A Good Woman sermonizes in the manner Wilde satirized; the movie bends over backwards to assure the audience that marriage and monogamy, the butt of jokes throughout, are just and right. That's swell for Victorians-Lady Windermere's Fan premiered in 1892-but it's less convincing in the 1930s, when the movie takes place, let alone the 21st century.