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A Good Woman

Gone Wilde

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Listen to the tributaries of A Good Woman, and you'll hear what sounds like the babbling of Oscar Wilde, on whose 1892 comedy of manners, Lady Windermere's Fan, this new movie is based.

 

 

"The best way to keep my word is never to give it," says a man to the married woman he's hoping to seduce. Or: "A man should never buy a woman jewelry. It makes her wonder what he bought his mistress." And my favorite: "Sausage and women: If you want to enjoy the experience, never watch the preparation of either."

 

This all sounds like Wilde, though these lines appear nowhere in Lady Windermere's Fan. (If Wilde didn't write them elsewhere, then he will.) Still, these quips are decidedly less frothy when mounted with such sobriety. A Good Woman takes the heart of its donor and transplants it from 24 hours in a fin-de-sií¨cle London drawing room to a week or so on the Amalfi Coast in 1931, where marital bliss grows what appears to be an adulterous blister.

 

It's the story of Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers), a wealthy young American stockbroker married for one perfect year (so far) to 21-year-old Meg (Scarlett Johansson), a paragon of good upbringing (no alcohol, sex with the lights off). In Italy, they bump into Lord Darlington, Robert's raffish pal from England. Soon they all make the unfortunate acquaintance of Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt), an American seductress who goes to Italy to meet men who are "famous and rich" because she's "infamous and poor."

 

Darlington immediately falls for Meg and tries to seduce her. Robert immediately gives everyone the wrong impression by meeting secretly with Mrs. Erlynne. And all around them, a privileged klatch of three old women and three old men -- among them the idly rich, not-quite-so-dumb Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson), who proposes to Mrs. Erlynne despite (or because of) her reputation -- keeps the gossip (and, therefore, the plot) swirling. Through it all we're taught cautionary lessons about prejudgment, or any kind of judgment at all.

 

It's very entertaining, if slight and transparent, and the director, Mike Barker, films it in shadows and muted sunlight that complement its grim assertions about the possibility of fidelity and love. The title actually refers to both women: Meg, for her ultimate trust and faith; and Mrs. Erlynne, for keeping a painful personal secret whose revelation would be even more painful for someone else. Leave it to Wilde to make a lie the nobler option.

 

The actors are mostly fine, although Johansson is still just a pouty face. Only Hunt is nakedly miscast: Her voice rises up shrilly at the ends of her lines, and you can see how hard she's trying to play naughty. But Hunt has always been the mater dolorosa of abject goodness, and she's unconvincing at anything else. Her performance resonates only when Mrs. Erlynne drapes herself in the shroud of her sacrifice.

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