Movie review: ‘A Good Woman'

2 stars (out of four)

"A Good Woman" transports the 1891 Oscar Wilde play "Lady Windermere's Fan," set in the drawing rooms of London, to Italy's Amalfi coast in 1930. As a result the movie has a lot of nice hats going for it. Most of them are perched atop the noggins of Helen Hunt, she of the sleek, sharp Deco profile, and Scarlett Johansson, who has nothing angular about her .

Surely the hats can't matter all that much, you say. Well, "A Good Woman" is a tedious picture, redeemed in part by Tom Wilkinson's performance as Tuppy--he's the sole cast member who doesn't give birth to every epigram--and by the hats. (John Bloomfield designed them.) Many of the lines are pearls, not unexpectedly. The adapting screenwriter is Howard Himelstein, but the best material belongs to Wilde.

In the play the peaceable domesticity of Lord and Lady Windermere (turned into Americans in the film) is shattered when Lord Windermere embarks on what appears to be an affair with Mrs. Erlynne (Hunt). "Many a woman has a past," says the Duchess of Berwick in Wilde's original, "but I am told that she has at least a dozen, and that they all fit." Erlynne's true identity is the play's delayed secret, but so much else is going on between the characters--issues of trust, naivete, self-knowledge--that "Lady Windermere's Fan" remains sterling theater for reasons unrelated to purloined letters and the like.

"A Good Woman" has the will to adapt Wilde to a fresh milieu, but not the way. Screenwriter Himelstein focuses on Erlynne, whom we first see in New York, dining among the ladies whose husbands she has known. Then it's off to Italy, where Erlynne makes the acquaintance of her fellow Americans Meg Windermere (Johansson) and her husband, Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers). The whispers begin. Why is Robert sending checks to that impudent hussy?

Wilkinson plays Erlynne's wealthy suitor, and whenever he's on screen "A Good Woman" suddenly improves. He has the ease and the technical chops to humanize the banter. As for Hunt, I'm not sure what she's after here. I'm not sure I ever know what Hunt is after. Every move and look and vocal flourish carries an air of overcalculation and artifice. It's as if she's on some sort of anti-spontaneity drug. (Johansson, on the other hand, who can be very good on screen, here barely keeps up with the dialogue.)

The script, directed in pedestrian, let-'em-stand-around fashion by Mike Barker, cribs from various Wilde sources, so that Tuppy is pulling out lines from "The Importance of Being Earnest." In the end it makes no difference how faithful or faithless "A Good Woman" is to its source. Hunt, who is actress enough to know better, delivers each and every rejoinder with the same predictable vocal topspin, and halfway through "A Good Woman" all you're thinking about is the whereabouts of a good vocal coach.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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`A Good Woman'

Directed by Mike Barker; screenplay by Howard Himelstein, based on the play "Lady Windermere's Fan" by Oscar Wilde; cinematography by Ben Seresin; production design by Ben Scott; music by Richard G. Mitchell; edited by Neil Farrell; produced by Alan Greenspan , Jonathan English, Steven Siebert and Himelstein. A Lionsgate release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: PG (for thematic material, sensuality and language).

Mrs. Erlynne - Helen Hunt

Meg Windermere - Scarlett Johansson

Tuppy - Tom Wilkinson

Lord Darlington - Stephen Campbell-Moore

Robert Windermere - Mark Umbers

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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