'A Good Woman': Welcome to The Oscar Wilde Fan Club

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006

Wilde zing, I think I love you, and "A Good Woman" makes me know it for sure.

The movie is nothing less than a clever rearranging of Oscar Wilde's first great play, "Lady Windermere's Fan," about the gal we all love to hate -- the seductress, the opportunist, the woman with her eye on the prize. As Lord Augustus says, "I like a woman with a past. They're so damned interesting to talk to."

This version has been -- hmmm, updated isn't quite the right word. It's been, I suppose, semidated. It no longer transpires, as did Wilde's original, at Lady Windermere's great London house in the high Victorian year of 1892, but rather among a smart set of fey aristo expat decadents on Italy's picturesque Amalfi coast in the early '30s. It has airplanes, automobiles and steam yachts, to say nothing of blazers, ascots and sunglasses. Why, you keep expecting Elyot and Amanda from "Private Lives" to mosey in with a martini, a cigarette holder and a mouth full of bonbons and bons mots: It's almost as if the adapter, Howard Himelstein, is channeling Noel Coward.

The erudite will remember the plot (I had to look it up, needless to say). Lady Windermere, young and beautiful and full of life, is being wooed by the dashing cad Lord Darlington, who uses as leverage the fact that, as all the set knows, her husband, Robert, is having a thing, a fling, a bling, maybe even a ring-a-ding-ding, with the notorious Mrs. Erlynne, a bit older but still a head-turner and noted for her gimlet-eyed aggression in matters sexual.

Lady Windermere, bitterly disappointed, dithers but begins to seriously consider Pretty Boy Darlington's wooing when she discovers her hubby, whom she thought so perfect, has even been paying the older woman over the months. She's on the verge of heading out to Lord Darlington's yacht for the night when she is saved from her folly by . . . well, a good woman. To say more would be to incur the wrath of the Wilde thing.

Himelstein, ably assisted by director Mike Barker and even more ably assisted by cinematographer Ben Seresin, who renders the posh Italian coastline in the most golden of hues, has done some advantageous repositioning on the original text, somewhat akin to moving the furniture about but leaving the fabulous architecture alone. Thus the structure of Wilde's great piece, the progression of misunderstandings and revelations, is left standing, but many incidental details are rejiggered for the sake of the new setting and the more international cast.

For example, Lady Windermere is no lady at all. How could she be: She's American, played by the flavor of the month, Scarlett Johansson. It's a good move, for the reason that you actually don't like Mrs. Windermere that much; she seems stupid and callow and spoiled and not nearly as interesting as everyone seems to think, and that's perfectly within Johansson's slender grip. When she's excited because her hubby is about to give her a birthday present, Barker (or possibly Johansson herself, or possibly Joey, the third lighting technician) comes up with a ripe gesture that characterizes her for all time: Her little feet, dangling off the bed, begin to pump back and forth with infantile glee. That's when you realize it: She's a child.

Far more interesting, and as per certain dramatic rules Wilde knew by heart even in his first play, is Mrs. Erlynne. In this case, it's a gimlet-eyed Helen Hunt behind the eyeliner and the steely gaze. She may be bad, but at least she always speaks the truth, and as a bad woman she understands the hypocrisies and indecencies of that wretchedly artificial thing called society. Hunt lets herself look pretty hard in this film: The light is not flattering to her, and when she stares at her prey she never blinks, just like Hannibal Lecter. But she's, of course, the engine driving the piece, and Hunt's up to that. Plus she has a mean way with an epigram: "In this world, there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants. The other is getting it." When she snaps that line out, it stings.

But the pleasant discovery of this work so dedicated to the genius and beauty and grit of women is the excellence of the male performers. Begin with Tom Wilkinson as Tuppy, the rich old Lord Augustus, who loves Mrs. Erlynne. Tuppy is one of the great fools of literature, frequently played as tubby and foolish. Wilkinson gives him a grace and an irony; his Tuppy gets it in a very wise way.

Then there's the heretofore unknown Mark Umbers as Robert Windermere, seemingly a callow rotter cheating on his perfect little wife. (She's so perfect, who wouldn't cheat on her!) The British Umbers does a great job making the young Windermere a wealthy New York stockbroker, without a trace of accent. He also makes him seem straightforward and dumb and foolish, but then he gradually pulls back the curtain and shows us so much more. Robert is never as dumb as he seems, and never as rotten.

All in all, "A Good Woman" retains ye olde Wilde's zing, his brilliant plotting, his sense of pace and place, but most of all his snappy one-liners that have you thinking, "Why can't I ever come up with stuff like that!," and it finds a new way to showcase it brilliantly.

A Good Woman (93 minutes, at Regal Gallery Place and Cinema Arts Theatre) is rated PG for adult themes and profanity.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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