So, I thought, that explains the cleverness and wit. Too bad it was wasted in a movie like this.
I don’t know if it could have saved the day, but having someone other than Helen Hunt play Mrs. Erlynne would undoubtedly have made it better. Hunt’s delivery of her lines was off-putting. Perhaps her odd, rising inflections were meant to be intriguing.
Although Hunt is playing the part of a long-time and highly successful gold-digger, her presence here makes us think, repeatedly, that she is too old for this part, that, over and over again, she isn’t pulling it off—look at that grooved face, look at that stringy neck. Her figure is in great shape, but her face could never do what it is supposed to do, which is to entrance. Sorry to be harsh, but she didn’t fit the part.
Granted, physical appearance is just one factor in being charming, and perhaps it is the most overrated factor. I was completely open to being charmed in other than a visual way, but, again, Ms. Hunt couldn’t pull it off. If she had, much else would have been forgiven.
Many parts of the movie are ridiculous. Lady Windemere, after accepting on meager testimony that her husband is not carrying on an affair but is in fact being blackmailed, doesn’t bother to ask anything about the blackmail. Estranged husband and wife are reconciled as if by fairy dust.
Mrs. Erlynne, the blackmailer, has received half a dozen or more checks, plus cash payments (who knew blackmailers worked on installment plans?). Yet in the end, she shows a change of heart (she really didn’t mean to blackmail anyone) by handing back just one of the checks. Isn’t she a good woman? But what about the rest of the money?
The reason for the blackmail is that Mrs. Erlynne is the mother of the respectable Mrs. Windemere, though Mrs. Windemere doesn’t know it and would practically die from humiliation if ever she found out her mother was a “bad woman”. This motivation may have worked in the 1890s when Wilde wrote the play, but forty years later when the movie takes place, it doesn’t seem likely. Worse, to a modern audience, the idea that the poor Lady Windermere’s fragile ego can’t handle knowing the truth and must be deceived at all costs, well, it’s an unwelcome anachronism.
Equally ridiculous is Mrs. Erlynne’s reluctance to accept a proposal of marriage—even better, from her point of view, a marriage of convenience—from a wealthy man her own age. They are a good match for one another. Tuppy sees her as she is; he is thoroughly simpatico with her reputation, maybe even turned on by it, and he is eager to marry her. He is the sugar-daddy of her dreams who, if she keeps from queering the deal, will set her up for life.
So, why doesn’t she leap at the chance? At first, I thought: she’s playing hard to get. She knows her job, which is seducing men. This is the guy she wants to be serious with, so she’s treating him differently, taking it slow, playing hard to get. Good for her.
But, it was not to be. She nobly “sacrifices” her chances with Tuppy (even though we are given no evidence that she actually wants Tuppy—we the audience are rooting for Tuppy, but Erlynne’s demurrals seem authentic). She “sacrifices” her chances for marriage in order to cover up the truth of her daughter’s behavior and spare her daughter supposedly harsh consequences. What a great mom. Because of it, things go badly with Tuppy. A simple explanation would have set the whole thing straight, but for some unbelievable reason that option doesn’t occur to Erlynne.
Tom Wilkinson playing Tuppy is a treat. Seeing him exchange lines with Hunt, one hardly notices his impeccable acting power, it’s so natural, except in contrast with Hunt, who, in that setting, seems like nothing more than a promising actor in a small high school production. Sorry, but this just wasn’t the right role for her.