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Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2005
BITCHY OR WHAT?
Wilde at heart by the seaside
By KAORI SHOJI
"A truly good woman comes in only two types: One who knows nothing and the other who knows everything." That's an Oscar Wilde aphorism -- and, as we know, he could churn out aphorisms like Starbucks can knock out a multitude of coffee flavors.
In "A Good Woman" (based on Wilde's "Lady Windemere's Fan," and titled "Liso no Hito" in Japan), the aphorisms come fast and furious in a breathtakingly elegant setting and if the author were around today he would have been mightily pleased.
Director Mike Barker has changed the period from late 19th century to the early 1930s and shifted the action from London to the Amalfi Coast in Italy, but otherwise everything about "A Good Woman" is vintage Wilde: The characters are rich and well-groomed and solely preoccupied with honing their looks, making sardonic quips, and deciding what name they should cross out from the party invitation list.
When not out and about they hole up in the drawing room, sipping on gin rickeys or some such, and gaze upon the exquisite floral arrangements. Between Mike Barker and Oscar Wilde, a film has been made that shows us how to live, how to really live.
How to live? Suffice to say the first thing to go are all notions of work. Witness the opening scenes in which the infamously scandalous Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) is having a luxurious lunch in a New York hotel. When the bill comes around she tells the maitre d' to charge it to her lovers' accounts. When she's informed that the wives of her lovers have conspired to close these accounts she's only a little peeved. Without further ado, she sells her jewelry in a pawnshop and skips town without a backward glance, leaving a trail of unpaid bills in her wake. Brilliant.
Faced with the prospect of zero cash flow, Mrs. Erlynne turns on her radar and discovers that the Windemeres, a.k.a. New York's most fashionable couple, will be spending the summer in Amalfi. That's where she heads, apparently having decided that her next prey is the young and fabulously wealthy Robert Windemere (Mark Umbers).
Sure enough, within a week of her arrival she has him writing checks to pay for her fully staffed villa and a set of satin evening gowns. His young, innocent wife, Meg Windemere (Scarlett Johansson), remains, at first, blissfully oblivious of her husband's actions, but is soon alerted to the fact by caddish English playboy Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell-Moore), who has set his sights on seducing Meg.
Ah, the intrigues, the tempestuous misunderstandings followed by delicious reconciliations. The sound of chiffon dropping to the floor in a soft but decisive rustle. The champagne, the perfume, the extravagant boredom of long, idle afternoons! "A Good Woman" shows us what a vacation was and should be all about -- i.e. not the modern-day equivalent of a week's stay in some dinky cottage built by Club Med and lining up everyday at the breakfast buffet.
Meg spends her time bathing in the mornings in scented water, engaging in innocuous gossip with the cream of Amalfi society at "the club," followed by a stroll on the beach under a lace parasol. Often she returns home with a small jewel case balanced in her gloved hands while the chauffeur follows respectfully behind, staggering under a pile of her purchases. Her husband is waiting for her, and they chat amicably before that all-important ritual of "dressing for dinner."
Meg's equilibrium is put to the test, however, when Mrs. Erlynne shows up for her 21st birthday party wearing the exact same dress as she. Is it spite? Robert looks acutely uncomfortable while Lord Darlington seizes the opportunity to shower Meg with compliments: "She's too old for that dress; you look a thousand times more lovely!"
Meg, whose suspicions of Robert turn to certainty, is torn between revenge (i.e., succumbing to Darlington) and frosty indifference. Meanwhile, Mrs. Erlynne is being pursued by the lovable Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson) who sort of yaps around her like a pet pooch hoping for a biscuit. He's promising her a life of luxurious ease in exchange for her hand in marriage. Skillfully, Mrs. Erlynne holds him at bay while fueling his ardor at the same time, and she steals sideway looks at Robert, hoping for a clandestine discussion in the garden. This entire sequence is strewn with snarky observations, while the screen is resplendent with gowns and candle lights and women's necklaces casting subtle shadows on their bosoms.
Unlike so many other period dramas, there's nothing stifling or repressive about "A Good Woman" and that's probably due to the two leading women who retain an air of casualness and modernity throughout. Helen Hunt, especially, shines as the fortyish woman who's become a little weary of her own tricks, but supremely confident that she's at the peak of her skills. Oh God, the way she holds a champagne glass! An hour in her company is worth any amount of breakfast buffets.