When Kevin Kline mentioned to his friends that he had been offered a part in a new British comedy to be helmed by Monty Python’s John Cleese the response was: “Oh don’t do that! That’s British comedy, it’s too dark!”. A year later Kline would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as former CIA hit-man Otto West in that very same comedy. But his friends were quite right to suggest British comedy was the blackest of all and 1988’s “A Fish Called Wanda” is no exception to this rule with violent humour, animal murder and fish and chips styled torture. Clever, quirky and exceedingly quotable Wanda would eventually become one of the most iconic British comedies of the decade and reinvigorate Cleese’s film career along with paying tribute to the now almost forgotten comedic genius of Ealing Studio’s comedic features from the 1940’s and 50’s.
The plot follows a group of bank robbers who successfully manage to steal a priceless diamond and hide it inside a safety deposit box in a garage in London. However one member of the group Wanda Gerschwitz (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) and her secret lover and fellow bank robber Otto decide to betray the ringleader George (Tom Georgeson) and steal the loot before anyone was the wiser. The only problem is that George already moved the diamond to a new location before being apprehended by the police thanks to Wanda’s tip-off. Wanda is then forced to try and find out the new location by tricking fellow robber and animal-rights lover Ken (Michael Palin) and George’s lawyer Archie Leach (John Cleese) into revealing its whereabouts whilst Otto exacts his own form of interrogation in the most idiotic fashion possible.
To call the plot complex would be an understatement as each character is riddled with their own motivations, delusions of grandeur and greed. Leach becomes infatuated with Wanda, Otto becomes increasingly violent and paranoid, Ken has to eliminate a material witness of the heist and George has to try and win his court case. However the true comedy of the film, and one that taps into the format of the classic Ealing comedy, is in how amusing it is to see these actors play off each other. There are countless sequences where the cast are constantly running around London, trying to play off each others weaknesses and ignorance in order to get what they desire most. But in typical fashion the diamond becomes the mcguffin of the plot and instead the real story lies between Wanda and Leach’s growing love for one another. Cleese is his usual superbly British self, filling countless stereotypes of a conservative yet later rebellious lawyer whilst Wanda is a hot-headed, driven woman who is always having to deal with her witless partner Otto. And the real chewer of the scenery is Otto himself, played fiendishly by Kline with expert comic timing.
Otto is a violent, dimwitted and often confused individual who believes that the London Underground is a politic movement and that the central message of Buddhism is every man for himself. One of the more controversial scenes featured is when Otto ties up and tortures poor Ken in his search to find the location of the diamond. Sadly for Otto Ken: suffers from an increasingly amusing stutter, literately preventing him from telling the truth. And Ken’s own arc is incredibly funny when he tries three times to eliminate a stubborn and hateful elderly woman who witnessed George leaving the bank. His efforts eventually succeed but only after he accidentally murders the pensioner’s three Yorkshire terriers and for such a lover of animals Ken’s reactions are hysterical. A Fish Called Wanda is unique in British comedy to have half its main cast Americans but the formula works wonderfully. The interactions these flawed personalities share, when they plan the heist, when they argue amongst themselves, when Otto becomes jealous of Leach’s infatuation with Wanda; all boil down to a perfect irony. The film contains some wonderful performances from its main and supporting cast with Leach’s wife, played by Maria Aitken, stealing the show many times but on the whole it is the simplistic and sweet story of two different people growing feelings for one another that gives the film its heart. If the recent releases of British comedies such as Mrs. Browns Boys and Keith Lemon: The Film have made you a cynic give Wanda a thorough investigation, you won’t be disappointed!