A Good Woman

Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) is, once again, penniless following her latest failed affair. Still charming and beautiful, though losing her bloom, she is scorned by New York society and stands little chance at finding a new “benefactor.” When she sees, on the society page, that the newly wed American couple, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Windermere (Mark Umbers and Scarlet Johansson as Meg), will be traveling to the Italian Riviera, a twinkle comes to her eye and she sets off for the Continent in “A Good Woman.”

Laura's Review: C+

'Husbands like to see me come, wives to see me go.' Mrs. Erlynne Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," HBO's "Empire Falls") fends for herself during the Great Depression in New York City by using her seductive powers, but when the latest society wife discovers Erlynne's association with her husband, her funding is once again cut off. Following a money trail, the divorcee books passage to the Italian Riviera and arrives amidst a full swirl of gossip, but more than one gentleman, and indeed, even a prim young society wife, will discover that underneath it all, Mrs. Erlynne is "A Good Woman." Director Mike Barker ("Best Laid Plans") and screenwriter Howard Himelstein update Oscar Wilde's Victorian set "Lady Windermere's Fan," something which in and of itself is no problem, but in so doing, they have cast two lead actresses - Hunt and Johansson - who are far too modern for the 1930's. Hunt, in particular, makes the seductive Mrs. Erlynne far too blase and does nothing to modulate her high-toned voice, robbing her character of emotional depth. And even though she filmed this two years ago, Johansson already is too much the voluptuous sexpot and doesn't quite find her way into the naive and virginal bride. Still, "A Good Woman" offers the stunning scenery of the Amalfi coast and the thoroughly entertaining, completely endearing performance of Tom Wilkinson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose ") as Lord Augustus. He's the besotted Brit affectionately known as Tuppy who knows the American woman will bring him happiness despite her reputation and his friends' advice. Wilkinson makes "A Good Woman" worth seeing. Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers, a Brit capturing the picture of all American handsomeness) is an American banker indulging his pretty new bride Meg (Scarlett Johansson, "Match Point") with a villa and preparations for a twenty-first birthday celebration when he's set upon by the notorious Mrs. Erlynne in a shop. She pounces on an elaborate fan to flirt with the younger man under the guise of advising him on his wife's birthday present, then gets him to escort her for coffee. Soon local busybody, Contessa Lucchino (Milena Vukotic, "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," "Andy Warhol's Dracula"), spies him making frequent visits to Erlynne's house and the social set's tongues begin wagging. Meanwhile, Robert's friend, the infamous playboy Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore, "Bright Young Things"), sets his cap for the vulnerable Meg, who vehemently resists him until the town's gossip reaches her ears. Meg behaves outrageously on her birthday only to discover appearances can be deceiving just as she comes treacherously close to irrevocably damaging her own. Director Barker may have miscast his leading ladies, but he's got a sure hand for creating an ex-pat society in a luxurious and privileged setting. The insular, clubby community feeds on itself, replacing idle boredom with whispered scandal. With the exception of Darlington, the film's main players are all younger outsiders providing grist for the mill. The older, established set includes Lady Plymdale (Diana Hardcastle), whose hopeful admiration for Tuppy is both dashed and affronted, and the group's very own Statler & Waldorf standins, Cecil (Roger Hammond, "Around the World in 80 Days") and Dumby (John Standing, "8 ½ Women"), whose diminished hearing abilities assist the general gossip mongering with their misinterpretations. Lucchino exemplifies a human nature that finds bad behavior more satisfying than good and her daughter, Alessandra (Giorgia Massetti), the only other younger member of the old school, is a dowdy lump whose bird watching hobby provides her mother convenient access to binoculars. Wilde's titular fan is a symbol of the ill conceived perceptions which run rampant through his social circle and it becomes the lynchpin upon which young Mrs. Windermere's reputation rests. The play contains a secret with which we, the audience, are duped as well in our perception of what has been occurring. It is a well plotted bit of trickery, perhaps never better than in Tuppy's character arc. This seemingly minor character is introduced as the set's pet, a nice but simple man, yet Wilkinson turns his naive statements ('natural ignorance is the key to happiness') into the wisest reflections. Tuppy may be a member of the despised idle rich, but if everyone thought like he did, the world would probably be a better place.

Robin's Review: C-

Helmer Mike Barker, with scripter Howard Himelstein, adapts and updates Oscar Wilde’s romantic comedy play, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892)” to a more audience-familiar 1930’s. Of course, this is a Wilde play so things like the depression and poverty are ignored in favor of the pretty, pampered and privileged globetrotters of that day. Mrs. Erlynne arrives on the luxurious Amalfi Coast and immediately sets her eye on wealthy Richard and the two appear to be in the throes of a scandalous affair. Meanwhile, Richard’s friend, Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore), flagrantly flirts with the voluptuous and innocent Meg. A gift fan, from Richard to Meg, becomes the focal point in this comedy of manners, misunderstanding and secret identity. This could have been an amusing, old-fashioned drawing room farce but fails for two reasons: Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson. Both actresses are miscast for their very crucial roles, with Hunt putting a too-modern spin on Mrs.Erlynne and Johansson making Meg simply vapid. The rest of the characters are two-dimensional at best with a couple of exceptions. Moore gives a randy performance as the lecherous but likable Lord Darlington. Stealing the show from everyone, especially the femme stars, is Tom Wilkinson as the wealthy Lord “Tuppy” who sees Mrs. Erlynne for what she really is, a good woman. I found myself rooting for the story to do the right thing by Tuppy. Mike Barker’s direction is on the clunky side as he maneuvers his actors through their paces without real conviction. Credit is due for both period production design by Ben Scott and costume by John Bloomfield, especially Scarlett Johansson’s, which make her nipples two of the film’s most prominent characters. Other techs are fine. Howard Himelstein’s adapted script is full of all the great Oscar Wilde bon mots but they are forced and out of place here. Tom Wilkinson gives a wonderful performance that, unfortunately, will be forgotten by year’s end. It’s too bad he misspent his talents with A Good Woman.” I can see why it sat in the can for a couple of years.