A melodrama based on a comic stage play? Appellate Judge James A. Stewart ponders whether a dramatic version of The Producers could be coming soon.
Our review of Scarlett Johansson Collection, published April 13th, 2009, is also available.
"A good woman isn't exactly the handle I'd choose for Mrs. Erlynne."
Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan: A Play About a Good Woman was first staged in 1892. The comedy finds a young married woman discovering clues that her husband is having an affair, while something else entirely is going on. The play has appeared on the silver screen before, starting with a 1925 Ernst Lubitsch silent version.
A Good Woman, the 2004 remake, takes Wilde's story out of Victorian London and puts it down on Italy's Amalfi Coast in 1930, where it plays out among the jazz-age elite enjoying the summer season.
Facts of the Case
"Some women bring happiness wherever they go. Others, whenever they go. I do both. Husbands like to see me come, wives like to see me go," Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt, Mad About You, As Good As It Gets) says in her opening narration.
Her point is illustrated when she finds she can't pay a luncheon bill in a fancy restaurant. Mrs. Erlynne tries to charge the lunch to the account of one or another of her regular male friends, but the waiter keeps pointing out their wives, sitting together at a nearby table. They've already spotted her, and are whispering about her.
Thus, it's time for the "infamous and poor" Mrs. Erlynne to leave New York. She heads for Italy, where she finds Mr. Windemere (Mark Umbers, Colour Me Kubrick) considering a jewelry purchase for his new bride. Mrs. Erlynne has a better idea, suggesting that he buy her a fan instead ("A man should never buy his wife jewelry…It makes her wonder what he bought his mistress."). Thus begins their relationship, setting in motion the acidic tongues of the Amalfi regulars as they're seen leaving the shop together. With his frequent visits to her apartment and the odd expression he has after leaving, they're suspicious. One even tracks Mr. Windemere and Mrs. Erlynne with binoculars.
Meg Windemere (Scarlett Johannson, Match Point) trusts her husband—until she notes the number of checks he's written to Mrs. Erlynne. When she becomes a doubter, she's open to the romantic overtures of Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore, Bright Young Things). Meg's discovery could interfere with Mrs. Erlynne's hope for a romantic relationship with Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson, Batman Begins) as well?
This version of Lady Windermere's Fan puts less emphasis on sharp dialogue than does Oscar Wilde's stage play. Acidic lines in this version contribute more to a sense of melodrama about the threat to Meg's marriage, and to some touching scenes between Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johannson as the situation unfolds. Wilde's wit—with additions from the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Franklin, and Winston Churchill that sound authentic even when they're not as Wilde as you think—mostly is kept to the scenes with the gossips and the dialogue between Mrs. Erlynne and Tuppy, punctuating scenes rather than shaping them. At times, A Good Woman seems more like a weepy Greta Garbo picture from the 1930s than a fluffy farce, especially with an opera scene that echoes the one in Anna Karenina. The ending isn't quite as tragic as Anna Karenina, though. Fortunately.
As the scarlet Mrs. Erlynne, Helen Hunt gives the performance that holds the movie together. At first she seems the wanton woman in the gossips' stories, delivering her lines with a twinkle in her eye and an intimation that suggests that she just might be sleeping with Mr. Windemere. Later, she reveals her actual romantic interest in the wealthy, oft-divorced Tuppy through banter at the opera. Both are frank about their past failures and their mercenary intent—she wants money; he wants a beautiful wife. Then as the gossips get to Meg and threaten her marriage, we see Mrs. Erlynne's compassionate side as she steps in to keep the pair together. She can look young and coquettish or show the wise face of a mature woman, depending on the turns of the story (and, in part, a helpful cameraman). Hunt works best with Tom Wilkinson as Tuppy, trading banter in the theatrical style you'd expect. She also has good scenes with Scarlett Johansson as Meg, as she takes the younger woman under her wing while hiding her true motives.
Scarlett Johannson may be overshadowed by Hunt, but she's sympathetic as the pretty newlywed who falls prey to the gossips. She's given a look that echoes Greta Garbo and other silent film sirens, but manages to keep her sweetness and naïveté in view at all times. Her pouting expression tells the story as she confronts Mrs. Erlynne, of whom she's no fan.
The best of the supporting players is Wilkinson as the cynical Tuppy, who tells Mrs. Erlynne, when courting, that he's "had too many romances out of sentiment. They always end in settlement." While he claims shallowness, it's apparent as the movie goes on that he genuinely cares for Mrs. Erlynne. Hunt and Wilkinson make us hope more for these secondary characters than for the Windemeres who are at the center of the story. Mark Umbers does a good job of misleading the audience without appearing to be deceptive, a necessity for the role of Mr. Windemere. The comic relief is led by Italian actress Milena Vukotic (Andy Warhol's Dracula) as a Contessa who leads the gossip then plays sympathetic with Meg when she's doubting her husband. "Crying is the refuge of plain women. Pretty women go shopping," the Contessa advises Meg, who doesn't know yet how expensive the Contessa's gossip and meddling could be.
A Good Woman is excellent at recreating the milieu of the wealthy summer crowd, with homes and people looking stylish. Director Mike Barker has a knack for using what's available to best effect. A scene with pigeons flying away as Meg and the Contessa walk toward the camera demonstrates his improvisational agility. The buildings from Rome and the Italian Riviera have aged slightly, but still look enough like they did in 1930 to pass muster. With many outdoor scenes, the lighting is occasionally too bright and washed out but usually works well. Ambient noise is used quite a bit, adding grace notes without interfering with dialogue.
The commentary by Producer Alan Greenspan and Director Mike Barker points to the many limitations of a tight budget and rainy weather amid the lauding of the cast.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're expecting sharp comedy and satire, you probably will be disappointed with this adaptation. With the Oscar Wilde dialogue trimmed back, the script loses a little bit of punch, looking pretty but feeling empty. The first part of the movie also packs in plot points too fast, making it harder to get involved with the characters.
This little picture will make a decent rental if you're into melodrama and it might grow on you, but check it out before buying.
On its own merits, this one's not guilty, since it's a reasonable enough way to spend an evening. Be warned that it is guilty of tampering too much with its source, though.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Mike Barker and Producer Alan Greenspan
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