What exactly is a good woman? Based on main character Stella Erlynne's (Helen Hunt) opening line, "Some women bring happiness wherever they go, some bring it when they go." One doesn't have to wonder long which type she is, for as she delivers this voice–over line, we see her trying in vain to sign her hotel meal bill to three different married men. Apparently, their wives are sitting at the next table watching with cat–like glee as their mouse dangles perilously and pennilessly.
It's 1930s New York, and it seems the local crop of married male meal tickets has dried up for Stella. So she sells her jewelry to buy a ticket to the Amalfi coast in Italy, home of the rich and famous—though Stella secretly admits she's "infamous and poor." Almost instantly she sets her sights on a fellow vacationing American couple, the Windermeres—especially the dashing husband, Robert (Mark Umbers).
Though Robert and his wife, Meg (Scarlett Johansson), are arrow–straight, gushy newlyweds, the busybody locals soon observe Robert sneaking off to meetings with Mrs. Erlynne. And local playboy Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore) is only too happy to keep Meg company in his absence. Darlington is relentless in his pursuit of the young beauty, but at least he's honest: "How can I seduce you if you always bring your husband?" he asks one day before taking her to lunch.
It's such lines that make this adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play "Lady Windermere's Fan" a delight. Most of these one–liners center on relationships, decadence, and other people's business, such as Lord Darlington's declaration that "the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about at all." His elder crony Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson) advises that there are only two tragedies: "Not getting what you want, and getting what you want." Their nosy friend Contessa Lucchino (Milena Vukotic) states, "Crying is the refuge of plain women; pretty women go shopping."
That these witticisms are delivered by well–appointed, food–drunk locals lying about in the breathtaking Mediterranean scenery makes them all the better. This locale and the 1930s timeframe are a change from the Wilde original, which was set in late 19th–century London. And the Americans are transplants as well. For the most part, this all translates well to the big screen, where the lavish scenery serves almost as another attractive cast member.
But eventually there's trouble in paradise when Meg finds evidence that her husband has been giving money to Mrs. Erlynne. Thinking Robert's cheating on her, Meg contemplates running away with amorous and adoring Lord Darlington, which would make her forfeit her "good woman" status. There are the requisite complications and misunderstandings, all sprinkled with great lines and beautiful backdrops.
While the location is well chosen, not all of the cast members are. It's great to see Helen Hunt on the big screen again, but she seems all wrong for this period piece. Her face doesn't even seem a good fit for the short, curly mop of hair she sports crammed under fussy little hats. And she doesn't exude the seductive confidence that would afford her the ability to live off the "kindness" of married men. Scarlett Johansson also seems ill at ease in her clunky white shoes and boring good–girl lines. But Tom Wilkinson as Tuppy, Mrs. Erlynne's twice–divorced suitor, is a delight. He delivers his lines with the perfect blend of bite and light–heartedness. In conversations with fussy busybody Contessa Lucchino and bad–boy cad Lord Darlington, he shines.
As much as I enjoyed this movie, I wouldn't be a good woman (or reviewer) if I didn't readily admit it's not for everyone. The film will likely only release to art–house theaters, and if you've never darkened the door of one before, this isn't necessarily the time to start. And if your sense of humor doesn't sway to the snarky on occasion, you might also want to take a pass (though as the title suggests, at the end of the day, goodness abounds). But, if you enjoy the charming wit of films such as An Ideal Husband or Enchanted April, you'll probably be Wilde about A Good Woman.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Who do you think the title is referring to? Is it just one woman? What is "good" about her/them?
- At one point, Tuppy advises, "There are only two tragedies: Not getting what you want, and getting what you want." When have you found each to be true in your life?
- What do you make of Mrs. Erlynne and Robert's relationship? What's good about it and what's not so good?
- What do you think of Mrs. Erlynne's decision at the end of the movie? What do you think her motivation is? What would you have done?
- At one point, one character cautions, "You can step over love to pick up pride and guilt. But what will that be worth in a year, in 20?" What do you think she means by this? Have you ever been guilty of "stepping over love" in this way? What was the result?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
A Good Woman is rated PG–13 for thematic material, sensuality, and language. Children would likely be bored with this 1930s Oscar Wilde adaptation, but older teens might enjoy the wit. There's no nudity, bed hopping, or truly offensive language. Lord Darlington does flirt incessantly with married Meg. A couple of women sport cleavage–revealing dresses. And all the snarky comments about marriage and love might not send the best messages to young ears. But despite all the sarcasm, in the end it's a pro–marriage movie.
Photos © Copyright Lions Gate Films
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 02/09/06
It's always risky to update a classic work of literature for the screen, especially when you transplant the story's time and location. Director Mike Barker and screenwriter Howard Himelstein have done just that—moving Oscar Wilde's comedy Lady Windermere's Fan from the late 1890s to 1930, planting it against a scenic Italian background. The film stars Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johansson, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Tom Wilkinson, but their combined talents aren't enough to earn the film many good reviews.
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "a reasonably faithful [adaptation], but rather dank." Of the cast, he says, "Hunt is unconvincing, lacking the requisite air of glamorous mystery. Johansson fares a bit better, but in each case, their flat American intonation makes you long for the standard crisp British delivery. … And so it is that several of the English supporting players … come off best, and while Howard Himelstein's script purloins several of Wilde's choice epigrams, the overall rewrite is below par. Even the 1925 silent had more inherent wit. The current version has more in common with Otto Preminger's uninspired 1949 The Fan."
Mainstream critics aren't Wilde about it either.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingWorship Music Is Emotionally Manipulative. Do You Trust the Leader Plucking the Strings?The Spirit is at work, but so are the mechanisms around high-production sets.español
- From the MagazineI Find Comfort in the Divine WarriorA surprising psalm changed my view on God’s presence during seasons of trial.
- Editor's PickThe Spiritual Battle of Teen Screen TimeKids’ addictions to their phones isn’t a legislative issue. It’s a discipleship one.