A Good Woman.

Starring Tom Wilkinson, Scarlett Johansson and Helen Hunt. Directed by Mike Barker.
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A Good Woman is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play, Lady Windermere's Fan.

Oscar Wilde would not have called himself a moralist but in his plays and in his stories like The Portrait of Dorian Grey, he definitely proposes to his audience and analyses issues of right and wrong. The plays do it with wit and elegant style. If we listen carefully to Wilde's epigrams, we realise that under the felicitous vocabulary and phrasing, under the ironic contradictions, he is making strong moral judgments. It is done with the lightest of touches in The Importance of Being Earnest. In A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and Lady Windermere's Fan, there is an abundance of wit but more substance and depth.

Lady Windermere's Fan is a morality play about appearances and reality. Mrs Erlynne is a lady of the world, elegant in style but dependent on the whims and cheque books of the married men in her life. Society (and injured wives) have no difficulty in branding her a bad woman. (She is similar to but less destructive than Mrs Chevely in An Ideal Husband.)

By contrast the young and innocent Mrs Windemere is one year married, turning twenty one, believing only good about people and, though fearful of sounding priggish, she believes in standards and decorum. Everyone considers her a good woman.

When Mrs Erlynne goes to the Amalfi coast for the season, gossip about her abounds, especially as Mr Robert Windemere is seen, suspiciously and often, in her company. As she remarks, condemning gossip, "You have bought gossip and should ask for a refund".

Wilde loved upper crust society but he also knew how to highlight their foibles and the genuine nastiness underlying the respectable veneer. This is where his clever dialogue bursts pretensions. (Having seen the film with a paying audience rather than at a press preview, I was surprised and delighted how Wilde's aphorisms elicited so much delighted laughter.)

The director is Mike Barker who made The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Lorna Doone for television and the intriguing film about Oliver Cromwell, George Fairfax and Charles I, To Kill a King. He has not gone so far back in history here, nor has he gone back to Wilde's 1890s London. Rather, the action has been internationalised with Mrs Erlynne and Meg and Robert Windemere now Americans. It has also been brought into the 1930s, the period of Noel Coward, one of Wilde's most obvious literary and dramatic descendants.

This transposition works quite well and contrasts American new money with the decaying old money of Britain and Italy in the form of idle and stupid aristocracy.

The casting and performances are interesting. Oscar winner Helen Hunt (As Good as it Gets) is a brittle Mrs Erlynne who has to do a self-sacrificing deed to save Meg Windemere. Meg is played be the versatile Scarlett Johansson. There is a very genial performance by Tom Wilkinson as a rich man who admits he is ignorant but has a penchant for telling the truth. Stephen Campbell Moore is the charmingly caddish Lord Darlington.

Ultimately, superficial perceptions and judgments are overturned. Mrs Erlynne does the noble thing and Meg is able to overcome her presumptions and pronounce her a good woman. Meg, on the other hand, has been too rigid in her expectations and her moral fragility has cracked. She is in danger of losing her reputation and becoming a bad woman.

It is something of a surprise to hear so many of Wilde's lines and realise that they have become part of the culture, seemingly off-hand, throw-away wit, but humorously ironic, and moral.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is the International President of SIGNIS: the World Association for Catholic Communications and an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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