A Good Woman

(2006) ** 1/2 Pg
93 min. Lions Gate Films. Director: Mike Barker. Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Helen Hunt, Stephen Campbell Moore, Mark Umbers (II).

Packed with the frightfully clever bon mots of Oscar Wilde, A Good Woman cannot help but entertain, and yet Mike Barker's adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan is a bit of a cheat. Strained of much of its Englishness by the casting of American leads and a relocation from 1892 England to 1930 Italy, A Good Woman earns most of its good will from those Wildean epigrams, many pilfered from elsewhere in the writer's repertoire. Though the words still bite, Barker unnaturally allows the wicked drawing-room story out into airy, sun-warmed climes.

Screenwriter Howard Himelstein preserves the spine of the play, in which "infamous and poor" Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) reduces herself to clandestine meetings with married man Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers), who dutifully issues her checks. Windermere's bride of one year, Meg (Scarlett Johansson), remains none the wiser until playboy Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore), smitten with Meg, decides to reveal Robert's secret in the hope of winning her. Meanwhile, Tom Wilkinson's Lord Augustus (a.k.a. "Tuppy") is quite taken with Mrs. Erlynne, and though always gentlemanly, he interprets her every turn-down as a "maybe."

As one busybody biddy notes of Americans, "They don't shop—they pillage. And they speak loudly." They also taint adaptations of Wilde. There's no avoiding that Hunt is miscast here. By the time she hits her dramatic stride late in the picture, the damage of her stilted delivery has already been done. Though one can argue that beautiful and vapid Johansson is ideally cast as a prissy, dull-witted girl of entitlement, how long will we make excuses for her flatline delivery and an expression that says, "I think someone may have just walloped me with a frying pan. I'll be right with you"?

The English actors, then, pull the film's weight. Umbers comes across as a British version of young Christopher Reeve, and Moore briskly negotiates his motivations and witticisms ("I find the best way to keep my word is never to give it"; "Modern marriage thrives on mutual deception"). Wilkinson runs away with the picture, however, with his sympathetic (if anti-Wildean) take on a character usually purveyed as an object of ridicule. Erlynne fears the claustrophobia of marriage, but as played by Wilkinson, Tuppy shrewdly senses his opportunity to strike a happy compromise that will genuinely benefit both parties.

Most of A Good Woman depicts a nest of vipers, hissing with gossip, lies, and ruthless self-interest. That the picture is charming in its venality is the mark of Wilde, and surely some credit is due to Barker (in spite of the unnecessary transplant to computer-enhanced Amalfi, justified by a Hunt speech calling it "Land of the Sirens"). Mrs. Erlynne's self-motivated moral salvation allows for a happy ending, but a spring-loaded plot secret and the impassiveness of Hunt's delivery make the character's eventual guilt too little, too late for complete audience investment. Still, as a disposable outing, A Good Woman is good enough.

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