It would be a wonderful thing if filmmakers realized that Oscar Wilde works best on screen if played–if you’ll pardon the expression–straight. It wasn’t long ago that Oliver Parker ruined what’s certainly the most perfect piece of comic nonsense in the English language, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” by turning it into a slapstick farce, adding totally incongruous elements like helium balloons and lots of clumsy Three Stooges-like business. “Lady Windemere’s Fan,” Wilde’s first play, isn’t the flawless gem “Earnest” is, and so messing with it isn’t as much of a travesty. But Mike Barker’s retitled version makes entirely too many mistakes in trying to turn it verbally into something akin to his later plays while giving it a more photogenic setting. There are also serious casting miscalculations, particularly on the female side. The result is neither fish nor fowl. It’s more like foul.
Wilde’s original is about a young British aristocratic couple, the Windemeres, whose marital bliss is threatened by the appearance of an older woman of ill repute with whom the husband appears to have developed an intimate relationship. The big revelation is that the woman is actually the wife’s long-absent mother, whose identity her husband is trying to keep secret in order to protect the reputation of the woman he loves. A bit of confusion involving a fan Windemere has given his wife threatens her good name, but the mother she’s never known steps in to take the scorn upon herself and save the daughter she’d abandoned long ago from social disgrace. The play, set in London drawing-rooms, is a mixture of social satire and sentiment that’s more conventional than the more aesthetically “pure” farce Wilde later fashioned, and it’s also far less funny, with relatively few of the sharp-edged witticisms for which he’s best-known.
The direction that Barker and screenwriter Howard Himelstein have taken to turn what now seems a rather flat original–which was adapted in a more faithful but not much more successful fashion by Otto Preminger in 1949 as “The Fan”–is to make it visually more attractive by updating it to the 1930s and setting it at the lovely Italian port of Amalfi, and to stuff it with bon mots looted from elsewhere in Wilde. The script, in fact, is as much a compendium of the writer’s best lines as it is an adaptation of the original play, with most of the borrowed material put into the mouth of Lord Darlington, who here becomes a virtual double of Algernon Moncrief. In itself that’s not a terrible thing, of course; it’s always good to hear Wilde’s zingers, even when they’ve been plundered. But in some cases Himelstein appears not only to have borrowed them but also to have changed them in the process. If I’m not mistaken, for instance, the famous line about truth being never pure and rarely simple is here rewritten to refer to love–proving conclusively that Wilde should never be second-guessed.
The missteps in the script, however, might have been overcome if major miscalculations hadn’t been made in the casting. The secondary parts are, for the most part, very well taken. Stephen Campbell Moore is rather affected as Darlington, but that’s entirely appropriate for a character who’s all surface and style, and Tom Wilkinson makes an exemplary Tuppy. The corps of British stalwarts who play the snooty, cynical vacationing upper-crust are quite delightful. But the two main female roles are filled by stars who are woefully wrong for their parts. As young Mrs. Windemere (her rich husband, played unremarkably by Mark Umbers, has been socially demoted from a British aristocrat to an American businessman), Scarlett Johansson seems utterly at sea–and not because Amalfi is so close to the coast. But even she comes off better than Helen Hunt, playing the notorious (but ultimately self-sacrificing) Mrs. Erlynne. Not only does her performance appear to be composed entirely of empty poses, but her voice is too tinny and flat to deliver Wilde’s lines with any pungency. And though John Bloomfield’s period costumes are attractive, neither woman wears them convincingly; Hunt and Johansson both resemble kids playing dress-up and posturing in front of a mirror. One can always luxuriate in the luscious locale, Ben Scott’s elegant production design, Ben Seresin’s glossy cinematography and Richard G. Mitchell’s pleasant score. But ultimately they can’t compensate for the film’s more serious flaws.
Even second-rate Wilde like “Lady Windemere’s Fan” can be fun. Unfortunately as an adaptation of it “A Good Woman” proves not good enough.