Good Woman, A (Spain/Italy/Luxembourg/United Kingdom/United State, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It has taken this workmanlike adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play, "Lady Windermere's Fan," more than a year to reach U.S. movie screens. The reason it's here now probably has less to do with a sudden interest in Wilde than it does with the white-hot rise to stardom of one of its leads, Scarlett Johansson. The actress made the movie as she was on the rise, and it showed at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival (a year after Lost in Translation and The Girl with the Pearl Earring). But it wasn't until last year that Johansson's art house popularity spilled into multiplexes, and now she's the kind of commodity that Lions Gate Films sees a chance to exploit.

With Oscar Wilde plays, there are two givens. The plot will revolve around some kind of mistaken identity and the dialogue will be so witty that no one will care much about the story. Like The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, A Good Woman (the film's title, not the play's) fits those criteria. The movie succeeds because screenwriter Howard Himelstein keeps Wilde's best lines intact and the actors speak the words with practiced confidence.

Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) is an American woman of ill repute seeking refuge in Italy around 1930. Shortly after her arrival in Europe, she latches onto a wealthy young American abroad named Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers), who is newly married to the naïve, pretty Meg (Scarlett Johansson). But Robert's clandestine meetings with Mrs. Erlynne are not what they appear to be to the prying eyes of gossipy friends and neighbors, and the checks he writes aren't for services rendered. Meanwhile, the charming Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore) has his eyes on Meg, and sees a way to use Robert's apparent infidelity to his advantage. And a liberal aristocrat (Tom Wilkinson) thinks there's a softer side to Mrs. Erlynne that everyone else is missing. From there, the story plays out as expected, with secrets being revealed and concealed. One refreshing twist is that not everyone knows everything by the time the final reel has unspooled.

In terms of recent Oscar Wilde adaptations, this one is a little above The Importance of Being Earnest, but not on the level of An Ideal Husband. The viewer's chief enjoyment of Mike Barker's interpretation is the conversation, so those who don't appreciate literate, talky motion pictures will be bored by what this one has to offer (unless they become mesmerized by the copious cleavage on display). Lines of note include: "Bigamy's having one wife too many. So is monogamy," "The best way to keep my word is never to give it," "My own business bores me. I much prefer other people's," "Modern marriage thrives on mutual deception," and "You have no redeeming vices."

Helen Hunt, like Julianne Moore in An Ideal Husband, is an American actress playing a mysterious woman whose entrance into a stale community stirs things up a little. It's a near-perfect performance for Hunt, the frequency of whose screen appearances has dwindled of late. Johansson is nearly as good as the innocent Meg, who believes that she knows her husband because they have been married for a whole year. Tom Wilkinson brings a mixture of good humor and momentary pathos to the character of Tuppy. British veteran John Standing has a supporting role as another of the indolent British expatriates.

Although the narrative of A Good Woman exists primarily as an excuse for Wilde's dialogue, it works well enough to satisfy in its own right. There's nothing surprising about the twists that Wilde has built into the story, but it's interesting to view how the misunderstandings shake the foundations of the characters impacted by them, and to see how each of these individuals develops. A Good Woman is good enough to have warranted an art-house distribution before now, but at least the film has not been lost on a distributor's dusty shelves or relegated to a straight-to-DVD release. The dialogue and performances are worth more than that.

Good Woman, A (Spain/Italy/Luxembourg/United Kingdom/United State, 2004)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2006-02-03
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1