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‘A Good Woman’ nothing to get Wilde about

Feels like the typical BBC drawing room comedy. By John Hartl

Take those chilled Brits to gorgeous, sunny Italy, thaw them out and introduce them to a little romance. The formula clicked for “Enchanted April” and a couple of E.M. Forster adaptations, “Where Angels Fear to Tread” and “A Room With a View” — all of them art-house hits in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Alas, a similar formula falters in “A Good Woman,” which moves Oscar Wilde’s 1892 London-based play, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” to the Italian Riviera during the early 1930s — and changes a couple of the British characters into Americans. The director, Mike Barker, claims he wanted to be free of the kind of English drawing-room comedy typically broadcast on the BBC. But the transplant doesn’t take.

Many of Wilde’s most famous epigrams are delivered (often as throwaways), and the movie follows the original storyline about a scandalous woman who tests the commitment of a married couple. But the comic timing is uneven, and so is the casting. What sparkled on the page now seems talky and excessively preachy — a sin that Wilde might not have forgiven.

Helen Hunt, as the seductive Mrs. Erlynne, spends much of the film trying to locate the right tone for her character. In the process, she fails to suggest why anyone would succumb to her transparent golddigging. Beginning with a potentially amusing restaurant scene in which she’s embarrassed by a group of compromised wives, she lacks the confidence Mrs. Erlynne is supposed to embody.

Tom Wilkinson fares far better as Lord Augustus, a twice-married aristocrat who knows Mrs. Erlynne doesn’t love him but pursues her anyway. Secure in his character’s ability to weather rejection (and even enjoy it as part of a game), he comes closest to anchoring the film and lending it some mischief. It’s an unexpected, tour-de-force performance in a picture that’s starved for surprises.

Scarlett Johansson, fresh from playing a similarly conflicted character in “Match Point,” revels in Meg Windermere’s flirtatious relationships with her husband (Mark Umbers) and a playboy (Stephen Campbell-Moore) who comes to her rescue when Mrs. Erlynne appears to interfere with her marriage.

But Johansson has trouble making sense of the character, who seems guided entirely by whichever man she’s with. When she’s forced to choose between Campbell-Moore’s playful elegance and Umbers’ earnest blockiness, her final decision lacks conviction. There’s nothing that’s romantically inevitable about the outcome.

Wilde’s plays have had a spotty history on celluloid. “A Good Woman” is an improvement on the clumsy 2002 remake of  “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but it’s never as satisfying as the 1999 movie of “An Ideal Husband.” Adapted for the big screen more times than any other Wilde play, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” was most famously filmed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1925 and Otto Preminger in 1949.

Even though the silent 1925 version couldn’t do much with Wilde’s juicy dialogue, it’s generally regarded as the best adaptation because of Lubitsch’s witty direction. What’s most clearly missing from “A Good Woman,” aside from an engaging and believable Mrs. Erlynne, is a sense of style.