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A Good Woman (2004)

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 93 minutes

UK Certificate: PG

The year is 1930. Increasingly ostracised amongst New York’s élite and unable to make ends meet, aging serial adulteress Mrs Erlynne (Helen Hunt) heads for Italy’s southern coast in search of rich pickings from the husbands who holiday there. Soon she is regularly meeting, and fleecing, the young American Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers), while also being wooed by wealthy old Lord ‘Tuppy’ Augustus (Tom Wilkinson). As tongues begin to wag in the ex-pat community, the caddish Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore) sees the perfect opportunity to make his move on Windermere’s beautiful but resolutely chaste new bride Meg (Scarelett Johansson) – but as unexpected truths out at Meg’s twenty-first birthday party, it becomes clear that a good reputation is not the only thing that makes a good woman.

‘A Good Woman’ is a free adaptation of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, Oscar Wilde’s first successful stageplay. Howard Himelstein’s script retains many of Wilde’s bons mots, which are witty enough to amuse any generation, while transposing the action from the two London drawing rooms in which the original ‘Fan’ unfolded to the far more appealing backdrop of Amalfi’s Mediterranean coastline. The Windermeres have now become a monied couple from the U.S. rather than an English Lord and Lady (hence the change in the film’s title to what was originally the play’s subtitle), and this too brings certain advantages. For apart from ensuring the film an audience on both sides of the Atlantic, it enables Himelstein to import a theme more usually associated with Henry James than Wilde – the corruption of the New World by the Old – and also to introduce some amusing cross-cultural digs (like Darlington’s mock approval of America as a society “that’s gone from barbarism to depravity without bothering to develop civilisation in between”).

Yet if, towards the end of the film, Mrs Erlynne’s line “You think just because hems are higher and women can vote that anything’s changed for us?” is intended to resonate with today’s viewers, it has a strangely hollow ring. Perhaps in the early 1930s when the film is set, things were not so radically different for women than they were in the early, pre-suffragette 1890s when Oscar Wilde wrote his play – but, without wishing to suggest that the battle of the sexes is now definitely over, things have certainly moved on, and the film’s preoccupations with womanly virtue and womanly repute is of more historical interest than contemporary relevance, leaving the distinct impression that this ‘updating’ of Wilde has been done only by half measures.

Though central to the plot, the Windermeres are dreadfully dull characters, and one suspects that here, as in Girl With A Pearl Earring (2003), Scarlett Johansson has been cast principally for her picturesque qualities. Fortunately their staid young romance is set against the far more diverting courtship between the cynical but self-sacrificing Mrs Erlynne and the daft but self-knowing Tuppy – much more nuanced rôles, played to perfection by Helen Hunt and Tom Wilkinson. Of course nothing can quite prevent ‘A Good Woman’ from seeming frothy and inconsequential, but it is certainly a suitable film to which to take your grandparents. If they are old enough, they may even relate to its quaint values, stuck somewhere between the late Victorian era and the Great Depression.

It's Got: An almost unrecognisable Helen Hunt in excellent form, matched by Tom Wilkinson as her faux-buffoonish suitor; beautiful Italian coastal settings (even if, with their street funerals, lemon trees and frescoed villas, they are somewhat cliché-bound); exquisitely chiselled Wildean wit.

It Needs: Substance and contemporary relevance.


If the values in this update still seem out-of-date, at least Wilde's original lines still sound fresh.