Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) was his first theatrical success and with good reason. The classic "well constructed play," it is solidly plotted, with a beginning, a middle and a nice twist leading to a thoroughly satisfying end–virtues perhaps sneered at by modernists, but still appreciated widely by audiences.
Wilde, as was his wont, made fun of the mores and hypocrisy of the privileged classes, using his rapier wit and seemingly endless supply of mots to amuse and keep things light, even as he pierced the pretensions of his characters. Some lines may have suffered due to the changing tastes of the century that has passed ("Sausages and women – if you want to enjoy the experience, never observe the preparation."), but most seem to be timeless.
It is that timelessness that undoubtedly tempted the producers of A Good Woman to make this film adaptation of the play, as well as to move its period and location from VictorianLondon to 1930’s Amalfi, the Italian seaside resort.
The story involves Meg Windermere (Scarlett Johansson), whose husband, Robert (Mark Umbers), she has reason to believe is involved with an older, but most attractive (and predatory) woman, Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt). Mrs. Erlynne depends on the checks written by Windemere to remain financially afloat, but she also rejects the serious courtship of Lord Augustus "Tuppy" Lorton (Tom Wilkinson), a wealthy, but far less attractive catch. Meg is herself wooed by the gadabout Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore). Amidst gossip ("Gossip’s all right; it’s the moralizing that’s in poor taste."), misunderstandings and intrigue, the relationships must be resolved.
A Good Woman looks terrific, with lush settings and costuming appropriate to the period. But depriving the Windermeres of their aristocratic Lordship and making them (along with Mrs. Erlynne) Americans, rather than British, dilutes the verisimilitude of the original. For all their underacknowledged classism, Americans cannot begin to compete with the British in that department.
But the problem with the film runs deeper than that. Wilde was all about style and the London stage for which he wrote was accustomed to highly stylized acting and production. The rich observation and humor of Wilde’s quips was emphasized in delivery within that style. But in A Good Woman, director Mike Barker takes a more naturalistic approach and the great lines just glide by with little emphasis or the implied wink that Wilde intended. Without an incisive satirical tone and with the shift of both period and location, A Good Woman loses its bite and slips nearly to the level of soap opera.
Hunt (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Pay it Forward) strives valiantly with her important role, but somehow never quite fits in the ensemble nor catches the right tone of the lines. Johansson does little better in what threatens to become typecasting–beautiful, pouty young women with a grievance (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Match Point). Wilkinson (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, In the Bedroom) steals the show with charm, style, and delivery.
Wilde will have to wait for a film that does his play justice.