Stephen Campbell Moore
Gossips are the fat controllers of information, the Reuters Newswire for anything that lends a frisson of excitement to their dull lives, and that their lives are dull is a given: those who can do, those that can’t gossip. That is the theme of A Good Woman, a loose adaptation of Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde, who knew a thing or two about the impact of malicious gossip on those who transgress the norms of society.
Unlike Wilde’s case, the moral outrage of these tattlers is directed not at a gay man, but a “loose woman”, the elegant, independent and intelligent Mrs Erlynne, a dextrous and witty performance by Oscar winner Helen (As Good As It Gets) Hunt, and the action takes place not in a Victorian drawing room but on the sumptuous Amalfi coast during the glamorous 1930s.
The film opens in New York as a group of well-heeled women pass judgement on Mrs Erlynne, who they inform us is a man-eating, husband stealing, gold digger, who survives by preying on rich men who should know better. Hunt’s strength is that she creates sympathy and affection out of this unpromising material. Forced to flee her debts she lands in Italy, where she wheedles her way into the lives of the newlywed, super-rich American Robert Windermere, (Mark Umbers), whose clandestine visits and payments to the femme fatal are quickly noticed by the local scuttlebutts.
Made aware of the affair by unwanted suitor and notorious playboy Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore), Robert’s wife Meg, an irritatingly gauche performance by Scarlett (Lost in Translation) Johansson, resolves to revenge herself by running away with the dashing toff. What follows is the usual clear up following the revelation of a long buried secret and the discovery that a good woman is not necessarily the one who conforms to social mores.
Writer Howard Himelstein borrows freely from Wilde and other wits, including Winston Churchill, to create a sideways look at the sex war that is laugh out loud funny for both genders. By updating the original to 1930s Amalfi, director Mike (To Kill A King) Barker manages to draw attention to the very contemporary themes of the original, whilst making the most of the visual feast offered by Mediterranean sunsets and period costume.
My only gripe was the easy breakdown of the Windermere’s relationship, which is underwritten and fails to convince. Surely if they are as madly in love as they claim, Meg would have challenged the gossip? Tom’s sudden priggishness towards Mrs Erlynne also jars. Far more believable is Mrs Erlynne’s relationship with Tuppy, played with the usual smooth perfection by Tom Wilkinson, who has many of the best lines.
But I shall leave the last and wisest line to Mrs Erlynne, a rebuttal to those with nothing better to do with their tongues than sit in judgement: “If we are always guided by other people’s thoughts what is the point of having our own?” Quite.