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Oscar Wilde saves the day (and this film)
on 4 June 2012
This loose modernization of the Wilde play "Lady Windermere's Fan" could have been even better. The ingredients are all there (a cleverly deceptive plot, brilliant dialogue, excellent actors, fantastic locations) and yet something is missing. For me it's the vital chemistry among the actors, and the casting is partly to blame. Also, both the female leads would have benefited from more flattering camera angles and stronger direction, as they seemed reluctant to inject much personality into the roles of two devastatingly alluring women. Helen Hunt gave an anaemic and overly depressed performance, and was simply not believable as a career mistress who had been the luxuriously-kept darling of the wealthiest men in New York. Scarlett Johansson sleepwalked through the entire movie wearing the same sulky expression and surprisingly failed to convey the intriguing duality of her character. Mark Umbers, an English actor, was awkwardly cast as an American; he did his best but was hampered by said lack of chemistry with the main female characters.
On the positive side, Stephen Campbell-Moore gave an elegant and utterly convincing performance as a charming but slightly dissolute aristocrat. John Standing was delightful as the slightly squiffy socialite. Milena Vukotic provided many hilarious moments with a perfectly straight face. In fact, all the supporting characters gave very good performances, but the stand-out was undoubtedly Tom Wilkinson who routinely stole every scene he was in. What saved this film was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Oscar Wilde's epigrams which ran like a bubbling stream throughout the play. In fact it was almost overdone, as nearly all of Wilde's famous quips seem to have been utilized, many harvested from his other material.
The play urges society to take an honest look at how narrow-minded attitudes and malicious gossip can wreak havoc with innocent people's lives when "circumstantial evidence" is taken at face value, and also how sometimes the truth can hurt more than a discreet obfuscation of past events. It also shows how someone with a bad reputation can rise above a blemished past and achieve redemption through an act of noble self-sacrifice. Anyone familiar with Wilde's life will recognize his personal knowledge of these themes, however, in his inimitable style he makes his points through humour rather than by preaching. Another excellent reason to watch this production is the visual feast of the villa interiors and the beautifully photographed Amalfi location. I have deducted a star because of the uneven cast, but that has not stopped me from watching this DVD several times already and, to me, the brilliant dialogue alone would justify a purchase.