A Good Woman – Nothing “Wilde” About It

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  • Topic: Lady Windermere's Fan, Scarlett Johansson, A Good Woman
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  • Published : October 18, 2010
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Reviewing: A Good Woman (2004), film directed by Mike Barker, adapted from Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892)

A Good Woman – Nothing “Wilde” about it

Oscar Wilde, a master of wit and infamous for clever conversation, is considered one of the greatest conversationalists of his time. Therefore it would be wise to tread carefully when taking on one of his works, such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, Do not dare take it out of its natural habitat or even think of carrying it out of the country and bringing it up to date. Wilde's hyper-articulate, clever bons mots exchanging élite belong to only one time and one place: the glamorous inner sanctums of late-late 19th century, upper class Victorian London. Mike Barkers, A Good Woman, seems to have missed this point entirely, transporting us to a world of affluence and privilege, set within magnificent villas, country club luncheons, and opera. We are provided with a highly romanticized telling, which, for some reason, has moved to the exotic, pristine milieu that is Italy's Amalfi Coast. Complete with a modernized wardrobe to suit the sexier new time period of the 1930s, we no longer have the coldly scintillating social comedy Wilde had so intended. Of course, it is understandable that filmmakers want to add colour and texture to Wilde, and sure, there are particular film conventions that must be followed, but it really should not be necessary if his rolling, mellifluous voice is allowed to speak up and witty dialogue is allowed to play its tricks for it is this clever prose, along with Wilde’s colourful characters and setting, that make this a charmer of a play. Wilde understood best that in the theatre world, success is to have people quote you and so, he built an entire play around snobs tossing out voguish epigrams, like confetti at a wedding. However, A Good Woman is merely another misbegotten Hollywood-minded screen adaptation for, unless you are familiar with Wilde, you would not know that this was based on his play, his perfumed witticisms, which make only guest appearances, are our only proof. It has been so heavily reworked that it stages more like a period romancer studded with occasional Wilde-isms rather than the biting social commentary dressed up in florid prose he had first intended. It does not go anywhere handsomely but rather turns into a poignant melodrama of sacrifice and redemption, which isn't really what Wilde had in mind. It lacks his high-toned repartee which, really, is what makes the play what it is for it is his engaging and blunt language, and disapproving tone that reveals the values of his characters and their society rather than the plot itself. Barker, mistakenly, turns down the volume on Wilde and tries to compensate it and fill the film with fanciful costumes and playful scenery when it need not be filled at all except of Wilde’s ever witty dialogue. It is, however, lost in the film, only making haphazard appearances and even then, it has to scream out from the background to really be heard over Barkers “Hollywood fluff”.

Lady Windermere’s Fan is definitely a satire, but I think it also has a somewhat macabre tone to it. But this play has greater depths than that, digging deeper into anguished human emotions. It provokes thought as well as providing amusement, and in so doing it tells us much about Wilde himself, his own sensitivities and depths of feeling and understanding. Barker and Himelstein, however, did not seem to understand this when taking on this adaptation and instead of allowing the dialogue to play through and take centre stage; they have tried to beef up the plot and brighten up the characters and have given us something that is not nearly as delightful as the original. Himelstein’s first major insult to Wilde was in changing the Windermere’s from Lord and Lady and making them the moneyed American newlyweds, Robert and Meg Windermere. This proves only to move further from the plays initial intention, a microscopic glance...