'A Good Woman' Lacks Wilde's Bite A Good Woman is based on Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan. But unlike Wilde's play, which is based in Victorian England, the film is set in Italy decades later. Critic Kenneth Turan is worried the story can't survive such a drastic change of scene.



'A Good Woman' Lacks Wilde's Bite

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There is more than one Oscar in movie news this week. Oscar nominations were handed out Monday and a new film version of a play by Oscar Wilde opens today. Los Angeles Times and Morning Edition film critic Kenneth Turan has this review.

KENNETH TURAN reporting:

A Good Woman takes its title from the last line of the play it's based on, Lady Windermere's Fan, by Oscar Wilde. The film starring Helen Hunt, Scarlett JOHANSSON and Tom Wilkinson is well intentioned and mildly diverting. But in attempting to modernize its story, A Good Woman loses many of the things that make the original so memorable. The Wilde play is a source of such classic witticisms as I can resist everything except temptation, but it's set entirely in a circa 1890 London drawing room; not the most photogenic of locales. So, everyone jumped at the chance to move the whole business to Italy's scenic Amalfi Coast during the glamorous 1930's. Unfortunately, like certain indigenous plants, the Wilde play has not survived the transplant in perfect health. Despite its talented cast, the result lacks Wilde's trademark bite. It's soft and middlebrow, while he was anything but. A Good Woman shows what happens when Mrs. Erlynne, a notorious jezebel, known for seducing other women's husbands, takes up residence in that part of Italy.

Ms. HELEN HUNT (Actress as Mrs. Erlynne): Forgive me, you're American aren't you? I'm from New York; Mrs. Erlynne.

Ms. SCARLETT JOHANSSON (Actress as Mrs. Windermere): Rhode Island, Mrs. Windermere.

Ms. HUNT (As Mrs. Erlynne): I need an opinion from home. Now, be honest. Would you wear it?

Ms. JOHANSSON (As Mrs. Windermere): Well, it doesn't leave much to the imagination, does it?

Ms. HUNT: (As Mrs. Erlynne): Well, that depends on the imagination. Some men have more than others.

TURAN: Soon, local gossips connect Erlynne with Robert Windermere, whose young wife is played by JOHANSSON. She in turn finds herself vulnerable to a vile seducer. The truth about men and women, however, is rarely what everyone says it is, especially where Oscar Wilde is concerned. While moving this story to Italy makes for scenic vistas, it also creates problems. For one thing, Wilde's concerns about the restrictive nature of society don't play as well outside the rigid confines of Victorian England. Also sacrificed in this more naturalistic production is the brilliance of Wilde's artifice. His sharpness and crackling energy make a bad fit with the film's unsuccessful attempts at well-rounded characters. Not helping either are misconceived performances by a pair of gifted actresses. JOHANSSON is artificial as a young bride who spends much of her time pouting through sensual lips and the empathetic Helen Hunt feels miscast as a heartless woman of the world. A Good Woman won't ruin anyone's day, but it won't make anyone's either, and it won't get the great Oscar Wilde anything like the admiration his work deserves.


Kenneth Turan is a film critic for Morning Edition and the Los Angeles Times.

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