No doubt the grade above would be a notch or two lower had I previously been acquainted with Wilde's play; like Parker's 1995 movie of Othello, this is a thoroughly pedestrian adaptation, visually undistinguished and often dramatically inert, enjoyable only because of the excellence of its source. Surprisingly, it's at its clumsiest when attempting to be delightfully droll, even though delightful drollery was indisputably Wilde's forte. The first two reels are crammed with superb bons mots, but most of them are delivered in a strained and faintly exhausted manner, as if Parker had filmed the first off-book rehearsal and his dream cast were still too busy trying to remember their lines to deliver them confidently and naturally. (Minnie Driver, in particular, is trying way too hard, though maybe it's just that her screwball sensibility tends to clash with her upper-crust accent; I'm something of an Anglophile as a rule, yet I consistently find that the more English she behaves, the less I enjoy her performance.) Matters improve considerably once the complicated plot gets fully underway and the picture's QPM* falls below 10; relieved of the burden of being bottomless repositories of scabrous wit, the performers relax somewhat, lending the final act's numerous confrontations and confessions an unexpected (and welcome) undercurrent of emotional gravity. Then again, come to think of it, perhaps they don't relax at all, and it's simply a case of Parker's inappropriately leaden touch turning what ought to have been a hilarious farce into a bizarre, semi-effective hybrid: one-half painfully unfunny trifle, one-half strangely compelling drama. Either way, my opinion of the film, initially unfavorable in the extreme, improved slightly approximately every fifteen minutes, thanks in large part to grounded, unprepossessing work by Northam and Blanchett; the latter has yet to make the slightest misstep, while the former, should he prove equally arresting in the forthcoming Happy, Texas, is a strong contender for 1999's cinematic Man of the Year award (see also The Winslow Boy). Parker, meanwhile, is very respectfully requested to stick to the theater, where he clearly belongs.
* (= Quips Per Minute)