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A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda of 1988 seems to be a movie made for the Berkeley Circle. It gives a perfect demonstration of British and American English in close combat. In a framework of traditional farce, quicksilver darting in and out, blink-of-the-eye scene changes and the hilarity of a heist-gone-wrong, it pelts us like an April shower with a wide vocabulary. Just as important for students, it romps from one language register to another affording examples of the various levels of language or degrees of formality English can employ. Tempting though this may be for teachers who would like to freeze the shenanigans here and there to make a didactic point or two, the comedy is unstoppable. The source of its excellence precedes the brilliance of the actors. It was written by John Cleese with help from the director Charles Crichton. Now Cleese was a key member of the Monty Python comedy group that revolutionized television comedy in Britain and beyond in the 1970s. The Pythons brought the great tradition of British literary Nonsense of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll into the 20th century, adding absurdist twists and wild irreverence. With a skip and a jump they came abreast of their great American cousins in comedy, Groucho Marx and his siblings.

Pythonesque, a word now in dictionaries, applies to Wanda’s deadly precision, pace and bite. But the movie doesn’t trouble the wide audience envisaged with any startling narrative tricks that might perplex it. The Python Michael Palin does his thing, Kevin Kline shines and Jaimie Lee Curtis as Wanda Gershwitz couples with Cleese, a vanity-challenged barrister, in the most ill-matched love scenes imaginable. London buffs are rewarded with novel shots of the city, notably of the railway arches, those vaulted enclosures beneath the tracks that crisscross the metropolis and are rarely considered photogenic. The movie, considered too dark for American audiences, was awarded prizes there after being somewhat politically corrected.



Peter Byrne

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