The champagne falls rather flat in “A Good Woman,” a heavily reworked version of Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” that’s neither fish nor fowl. Relocated from the snooty drawing rooms of 1890s London to the elegant playground of 1930s Amalfi, story of a young couple’s marital misunderstandings has a script that plays more like a period romancer studded with occasional Wilde-isms and gets uneven treatment from a mixed Anglo-American cast, led by Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson. Older, upscale auds could respond to tastily-lensed pic’s retro charms, but a wider audience awaits on cable.
Following Ernst Lubitsch’s elegant 1925 silent, and Otto Preminger’s 1949 version, “The Fan,” with Jeanne Crain, Madeleine Carroll and George Sanders, this is only the third notable bigscreen version of Wilde’s first legit hit. With its artificial characters and stagecraft, the play, first staged in 1892, remains problematic for any pic version, especially as the dialogue has less of the verbal bounce of Wilde’s subsequent works.
Scripter Howard Himelstein tacitly acknowledges the last weakness by stitching in bons mots from other sources; however, in the mouths of some of the cast, especially Hunt, they sound more like implants than organic elements. Use of Wilde’s original title for the play, “A Good Woman,” is a further signal that this is no straight adaptation.
With its theme of a society woman insinuating herself back into a world she left many years ago, some of Himelstein’s changes and updating work well. Prologue, with the elegant but penniless Mrs. Erlynne (Hunt) skipping unpaid bills in Gotham, 1930, and selling jewelry for a ticket to Italy, establishes a classy tone, with saturated lensing by Ben Seresin and tasty period design and costuming. On the boat, Erlynne decides to look up New York society newlyweds Robert and Meg Windermere (Mark Umbers, Johansson), vacationing on the Italian Riviera — for reasons as yet undisclosed.
Period flavor is nicely maintained in early scenes shot on the Amalfi coast, with a quintet of idle rich — Anglos Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson), Dumby (John Standing), Cecil (Roger Hammond) and Lady Plymdale (Diana Hardcastle), plus an invented Contessa (Milena Vukotic) — functioning as a Greek chorus of the chattering classes. Separately, a young, studly Brit, Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore), is making his moves on the pretty, naive Meg, aided by a rich sampling of cynical Wilde-isms.
Meanwhile, Robert bumps into, and is charmed by, Erlynne while buying an antique for his wife. Later, he visits her at a rented villa and sets her up with funds, seemingly because they are lovers. In parallel with all this, Tuppy has fallen for Erlynne – but she seems strangely reluctant to marry him for his money.
Some of the mismatches sort themselves out halfway, but then Meg accidentally discovers her husband’s secret payments to Erlynne. Misinterpreting them as love funds, and — unlike the audience — still not knowing that Erlynne is actually her long-lost mom, Meg decides to stand her ground at the final party of the season, a move that goes badly wrong.
In most respects, the film is so far from Wilde’s play that it’s practically a separate work. Bathed in pastels, ochres, blacks and golds, and easily moving around a variety of locations, it’s like another slice of ’30s nostalgia in the vein of “Enchanted April” or “Where Angels Fear to Tread.” Though undeniably retaining their wit, the Wilde-isms are finally more of a distraction, imported from another world and another genre.
With straightforward dialogue and a girlish allure, Johansson acquits herself well amid the more mature, sardonic company, without giving Meg much emotional depth. Brit thesp Umbers, with a convincing American accent, is OK as the business-like Robert, and veterans like Standing and Hammond bring the gossiping supports vividly to life. In a role originally announced for Joseph Fiennes, Moore (“Bright Young Things”) makes Darlington a charismatic romantic lead but simply looks too nice to convince as a cynical philanderer.
However, pic’s main problem is Hunt, who’s not only miscast as a mature society Jezebel — Kim Basinger was an earlier name in the hopper — but delivers her lines with a coldness and flatness that robs them of any pizzazz or allure. Crucially, the theme of Erlynne wanting to save her daughter from her own earlier mistakes gets lost emotionally in this version. And though Wilkinson, as Erlynne’s wannabe vis-a-vis, does his utmost with the likable character of Tuppy, opposite Hunt he’s mostly paddling upstream.
Helming by Mike Barker (“The James Gang,” “Best Laid Plans,” “To Kill a King”) is pro at all levels, in a superior small-screen way. Editing by Neil Farrell never tarries.