By Phil Hall | February 5, 2006

I have no clue why anyone thought it was necessary to update and transplant Oscar Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” from late-Victorian London to the Italian Riviera of 1930, nor can I understand why the main characters were made into Americans. And for that matter, why get rid of a universally-recognized title and substitute it with the generic label “A Good Woman”?

But despite such odd tinkering, little damage is done and “A Good Woman” is a pleasant diversion which mixes snatches of Wilde’s waspish humor with a stylish Art Deco environment. The result is amusing to the ears and easy on the eyes.

In this incarnation (scripted by Howard Himelstein), the notorious man-trap Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) leaves New York as the Great Depression and a horde of angry wives literally drive her out of town. Sailing for the Amalfi coast, she sets up residence in a small villa and falls in with a predominantly English upper-crust society who seem to spend their time attending cocktail parties and exchanging barbed comments. A young American pair, the banker Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers) and his 21-year-old wife Meg (Scarlett Johansson) are also in town, and soon the local gossips are circulating stories about Mrs. Erlynne having an affair with Robert Windermere. Meg eventually gets word of this and decides to play her own adultery hand by acknowledging the never-subtle flirting of the aristocratic bad-boy Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell-Moore).

“A Good Woman” takes a bit of time to get into its groove due to the physical miscasting of its two leading ladies: Helen Hunt lacks the physical glamour and vivacious energy needed to fuel Mrs. Erlynne’s scandalous reputation, while Scarlett Johansson is too sophisticated to be credible as a thoroughly naive waif. But both women gamely stay with their roles and eventually find their marks, particularly in the film’s final quarter when the story gathers a surprising bounty of warmth and sincerity and the women are forced to consider the consequences of their potential actions. You won’t find plot spoilers here, but let it be said there is a significant surprise and Hunt and Johansson react to the story’s late-stage twists with deft dramatic skill.

Hovering on the periphery of the tale is a small squad of scene-stealing character actors led by Tom Wilkinson, playing a good-hearted millionaire who takes his own fancy to Mrs. Erlynne. Elsewhere on screen are John Standing and Roger Hammond as sarcastic elder observers to the fracas and Milena Vukotic as a rumor-stirring countess who travels everywhere with a Chihuahua tucked under her arm, a la Paris Hilton.

“A Good Woman” earns extra points for its marvelous location photography and its rich costume and production design. Plus, Richard G. Mitchell’s score captures the musical tastes of that distant era without clobbering the soundtrack with wall-to-wall sound or digging up vintage tunes to “set the mood.

One last mystery: “A Good Woman” was made in 2004 but is only now getting a theatrical release. What took it so long?

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