Monday, June 23, 2014

A Good Woman - 2004

"A Good Woman" - 2004
Dir. by Mike Barker - 1 hr. 33 min.

Official Trailer #1

by Clayton Hollifield

There are a few things that I have an inexplicable soft spot for.  One such thing is the work of Oscar Wilde.  It's not to suggest that his work is without merit, that is certainly not the case.  But I usually enjoy more... streamlined work.  I guess you could say more American work.  Wilde's best material is heavy on witty dialogue and glamorous settings (this is set in the 1930s, initially in New York, and then in Italy), and social interplay.  These are not things that frequently interest me.  But Wilde had such a way with what he did that I find his work irresistible, and find him to be a very compelling figure.  I even have "oscar wilde" set as a search term on my DVR, to see what turns up about him (I also have "jonestown" saved, to round out this peek into my personality).  "A Good Woman" turned up sometime over the last year, and I was finally in the mood to watch it this weekend.

Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) suddenly finds herself struck by a sudden turn of fortune.  Basically, all of the wives in her social circle have simultaneously discovered that their respective husbands have been carrying on with her, and they cut off her sources of income.  She divests herself of her investments and makes off for Europe, having hatched a scheme involving a pair of newlyweds.  The newlyweds Robert and Meg Windermere (Mark Umbers and Scarlett Johansson, respectively), are in Italy on their honeymoon, along with a batch of other expats, like Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson), who is on the hunt for a third wife, and sisters Contessa Lucchino (Milena Vukotic) and Lady Plymdale (Diana Hardcastle).  Mrs. Erlynne comes across Robert shopping for his wife's birthday present, and offers her opinion, which leads to some things and some misunderstandings.  I mean, it's an Oscar Wilde story - half the deal is going to be what people are doing behind other people's backs, and the other half is what the people in the story think that other people are doing behind other people's backs.

First off, the plot is sufficiently tangled to stay interesting over the course of the movie, and a couple of the twists are doozies.  I don't want to give short shrift to this part of the movie - the story is well-executed, interesting, and I'd rather not blow any of the twists.  But an even bigger part of "A Good Woman" is the notion of visually luxuriating in beauty.  It's maybe the most pervasive thing about the film; the settings are so beautiful as to feel dream-like (something that Baz Luhrmann played with in his recent version of "The Great Gatsby," and I think this is a valid comparison even beyond the two films having been set in roughly the same time period), the characters exist mostly only in the pursuit of luxury (a function of the social class and setting being written about).  It's like a perfect vacation, where everyone's always dressed to the nines, drinks are always flowing, and everyone talks in witty rejoinders.

But of course, the real visual focus of "A Good Woman" rests on the unbared shoulders of Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson.  Although they play characters at nearly polar opposites of life experience, they both end up wearing the same dress at the same party, and one's opinion about who wears it better likely depends heavily on which of the actresses one's age is closer to.  That's to say, the two woman here are testaments to why female beauty is an enduring subject of art, now and forever.  This isn't the only reason to watch "A Good Woman," but the dynamic of how Mrs. Erlynne uses her beauty in an aggressive, clever manner to get what she wants, against how Meg Windermere's naivety and idealism make her an uncomfortable target of affection from other men is observant and nuanced, which is probably why this movie aired on Showtime's "Women" channel instead of higher up on their hierarchy.  Although the scenes aren't juxtaposed against one another, there are parallel scenes where Mrs. Erlynne is courted by Tuppy (a very adult, pragmatic conversation, although one not devoid of romantic passion), and Meg's husband's best friend pursues her in earnest, which she's been clear is unwelcome, but she doesn't seem to have the tools to keep him at arm's length (or further away).

"A Good Woman" is a pleasant ride, with great visual attention paid to beauty of all kinds.  It's not a story about big things, it's a movie about a young couple's love, and the ways that the less scrupulous and more cynical can derail that love.  The stakes may not be high, but the story goes along so smoothly and with so many great lines being traded off, and I promise you that you'll never look at a woman's mostly bare back in the same way.  This might not be your cup of tea, but it's not the sort of thing that one would regret watching.  But if it is the sort of thing you're into, dig in.

3.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

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