A Good Woman Reviews
Why do modern directors and writers think they are smarter than some of the best writers in the English language? In this case, Oscar Wilde's great play Lady Windemere's Fan gets distorted, the worst sin coming in the third act of the film. In addition to alterations in the plot, writer Howard Himelstein interjects some of Wilde's random witticisms into the script; for example, there is little reason why America being the only country to go from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between should be included in the film. It's funny, of course, but out of place.
Helen Hunt does not deliver a strong performance. I often thought that Wilde's sophisticated dialogue puts Hunt out of her element, and Scarlett Johannson isn't much better. Obviously the Britons, Tom Wilkinson and Stephen Campbell Moore aren't similarly affected.
Overall, the source material is strong, but the film isn't.
"A Good Woman" is put together sloppily with very generic techniques that add nothing to the subpar plot with some of the most annoying side characters I've seen in a very long time. This movie is not worth a watch.
[font=Century Gothic]"A Good Woman" is a curiously lifeless adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" that really only has Wilde's patented bon mots and Tom Wilkinson's charming performance going for it. The blame lies mostly in the horrendous miscasting of Helen Hunt who is simply dreadful and has always had the sex appeal of a rotten banana.(So, it's not simply her age. After all, Helen Mirren still has it.)[/font]
[font=Century Gothic]What the movie seeks to convey is the lack of opportunities for a woman excommunicated from society in that day and age and who is forced to live on the margins.(But Mrs. Erlynne's profligate spending does not help her cause.) And it also serves as a commentary on society's inability to mind its own business.[/font]
Regarding the liberties taken with the play, I think that's actually the film's strong suit. Within the play itself, most of the exposition is handled with soliloquy. In a film, you can do that by letting the characters break the fourth wall--the more recent film adaptation of "Richard III" is an example of doing this well--but I applaud the decision to add a expository sequence that weaves most of that material into a linear narrative. Also, given that there ARE scenes featured exactly as Wilde wrote them, and Wilde is without parellel among playwrights active towards the more modern end of things, I think it speaks to the strength of Himmelstein's writing that they only stand out starkly if you are familiar with the play and recognize the quotes.
On a structural level, what I identify as the film's major weakness is the 1930s setting. You can't believably set a film in 1930s Italy without SOME acknowledgement of the Depression and the rise of the European fascists. The film does address the Depression at one point, but identifies it as an American, not a global, problem. If this is meant to speak to the characters cluelessness about what is going on around them, it was either executed badly at the script level or lost in the editing.
Moreover, I think they only set it in the early 20th century so they could update Wilde as much as possible without loosing the mocking of high society as presented in the original work. I think that points to either the writer possibly not knowing what the story was really about or not wanting to lose some of the more biting Wilde dialogue. If the writer insisted on making that choice, it would have been wiser to set it in the 1920s, which would have avoided the awkwardness of showing these characters living in untroubled decadence during a global economic depression and made Erlynne's backstory even more reddeming by putting her youth in the end of the era of the robber barrons rather than in the Gilded Age.
Naturally, any version of a work of classic literature that isn't spot-on the original has the prospect of losing something in adaptation. And indeed, this version lost quite a bit. They seem to have gone out of their way to have kept in the best of the lines, or at least the best-known of the lines. However, they still trimmed enough away so that I don't know if we really got the best possible version of [i]this[/i] version, if you know what I mean. I'm not sure how long an unabridged version of this would be, because I've never seen it--possibly the only version I've ever actually seen is the silent one, which has its own problems--but I feel certain there must be something missing. Oscar Wilde was lazy, but he also liked the sound of his own voice, be it spoken or literary. The idea that an adaptation of one of his works best comes in at under an hour and a half is improbable to me.
Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) is a notorious woman. She has gone to Amalfi in the hopes of finding a wealthy man to take care of her. What she finds, among other things, is young Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers). He is less than a year married to Meg (Scarlett Johansson), who is about to turn twenty-one and is having a party to celebrate. But Mrs. Erlynne knew Meg, twenty years earlier. She knew Meg, because she is Meg's mother. She abandoned husband and daughter and disappeared, and all these years, Meg has believed that her mother is dead. Robert begins paying Mrs. Erlynne to keep her from revealing herself to Meg. Meg, alas, finds out about it, mostly through the machinations of the dastardly Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore). Darlington is attracted to Meg--it isn't love or obsession, because he doesn't feel that deeply, but it is nonetheless enough for him to hope that she will leave her husband for him. Mrs. Erlynne is herself the object of affection of Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson), but she will sacrifice what she must to protect her daughter.
I like the choice of setting for this version. I'm not sure where the quotes about Americans come from, as the Windermeres are not American in the original--hence "Lady Windermere," of course. However, it does put an interesting twist on how determined they are to be part of society. Of course, Mrs. Erlynne's reputation ensures that she would Not Be Received no matter what, but how much more willing they all are to believe something shocking about her because she is American. How much more innocent and sheltered Meg is allowed to appear because she is unused to the ways of British society. By setting the whole thing in Italy, not London, it is easier for Tuppy to have his happy ending. It is also a particularly glamorous era for women's clothing, meaning that Meg's birthday party is even more beautiful than it might otherwise be were they dressed in the right clothing for the time the play was actually written.
It's a bit odd how much this play celebrates "traditional marriage." Oh, there's a strong theme of forgiveness running through the whole thing, though it is deemed better for Meg that her mother be dead than "wicked." However, Mrs. Erlynne is not seen by Wilde as entirely wicked. What she did long ago wasn't right, though she was punished for it. Blackmailing Robert wasn't right, either, though this version, at least, implies that she doesn't have much of any other way to survive. (Though see my rant about smart women from [i]How to Marry a Millionaire[/i], not set that long afterward.) In the end, though, the happiest ending is that Robert and Meg stay married. People think of Oscar Wilde as some kind of profligate--and, come to that, he was for his own era. However, he was in his own way quite moral. Yes, Meg's a bit of a stuffy prig, and she needs to learn to loosen up, but the answer is not to loosen up so much that she runs off with a lover, repeating her own mother's mistake.
Once again, I have encountered a role wherein I'm not sure if Scarlett Johansson is acting, because she clearly doesn't have to. However, I must say that the most impressive part of this movie was Helen Hunt's performance. While she is old enough to be Scarlett Johansson's mother--if she were as old when her daughter was born as her daughter is supposed to be here--it's a little surprising that she was still willing to [i]play[/i] Scarlett Johansson's mother. She doesn't look like an old woman, but she looks middle-aged, a thing that seems almost less likely for an actress to be willing to try to play. She does not play the character as terribly maternal, but she plays her as someone who wishes she could be maternal. She's interested in herself, and interested in herself most of all, but she also wants what's best for Meg. She just isn't used to thinking about other people's needs. She's been Wicked for so long that being loving comes as a surprise to her. It's a fine performance in an iffy movie.