A Good Woman

A Good Woman (PG)

Updated versions of Oscar Wilde’s intricate Victorian soufflés rarely work. Here is one that does, and extremely effectively.

Set largely in 1930s Italy among wealthy ex-pat Brits and Americans, this reworking of Lady Windermere’s Fan casts Helen Hunt as the gold-digging Mrs Erlynne and face-of-the-moment Scarlet Johansson as Meg Windermere, the modest young socialite on which she sets her sights.

Soon all of Amalfi’s polite society is muttering about how this notorious tigress has her claws in hapless Robert Windermere (a breakthrough performance by Harrogate actor Mark Umbers, here playing an American). Certainly it appears so. Meanwhile dashing cad Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell-Moore) has his eye on Meg, while Mrs Erlynne’s confident manner has attracted the attention of ageing millionaire divorcee Lord ‘Tuppy’ Augustus, played with nonchalant ease by Leeds-born Tom Wilkinson.

More a love hexagon than a love triangle, this delicious little drama is packed with Wilde’s celebrated bon mots. Intricate, intimate and infinitely engaging, it throws up endless opportunities for misunderstanding, all the while wrapping up the action, reaction, suspicion and confession in a 90 minute package.

In the hands of Mike Barker, the terrific English talent behind Best Laid Plans and To Kill a KingA Good Woman emerges as a tightly constructed lesson in how to deliver a slice of period romance.

Barker, with screenwriter Howard Himelstein, has concentrated on his script. The actors – among them such scene-stealers as John Standing, Diana Hardcastle and the brilliant Wilkinson – relish Wilde’s words and bring modern humour to turn-of-the-20th-century witticisms.

Then there are the twists. Is Mrs Erlynne a marriage-wrecker? Has Windermere betrayed his young wife? Will Meg succumb to Darlington’s smooth attentions? Is Mrs Erlynne mercenary enough to take Tuppy’s offer of matrimony?

Nothing is what it seems, and no-one is quite as black (or, perhaps, as white) as they first appear.

Bouquets in this one are shared equally between leads and support except for one person: Helen Hunt. An actress seemingly more comfortable in modern garb and atmosphere, she appears awkward and ill at ease with the subject matter, the vernacular and the period. She is, however, the money – an Oscar winner alongside two nominees (Johansson and Wilkinson) – and so gets the lion’s share of the juicy moments.

The real fun, though, is in watching a new face break through into the big time. Mark Umbers is the one to watch here. He’ll be big – just mark my words.

Star rating: ***

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