In recent years, filmgoers have been treated to some rather lovely adaptations of Oscar Wilde's work, not least director Oliver Parker's AN IDEAL HUSBAND. Therefore, I was rather hopeful about Parker's adaptation of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. However, Dorian Gray is a very different beast to Wilde's society plays. They dealt with issues of contemporary morality, certainly, but in light atmosphere. By contrast, Dorian Gray is a pyschological novel, dealing with debauchery and corruption, using the genre tropes of gothic horror. The key question was whether Oliver Parker's directing style - high-gloss Merchant Ivory with whimsical modern touches - would be flexible enough to grapple with a meatier book.
The novel opens in late nineteenth century London. Talented artist Basil Hallward falls in love with handsome young Dorian Gray while painting his picture. Of course, there is no crude declaration of love given that homosexuality is taboo, but sublimated "ownership" of Gray's social life. This is put under threat when Dorian becomes fascinated with Basil's friend Lord Henry Wootton - a man who, while a member of the British establishment at the height of Victorian prudery, preaches a life of unrestrained sensuality. Encouraged by the man he admires, falling prey to narcissism seeing the finished portrait, Dorian starts to value beauty and art above all else, casually wishing that he could remain as young and beautiful as his portrait. He callously rejects his young lover Sibyl Vane when her talent fades and learns that his casual wish has been fulfilled: the wages of sin show on the portrait but he remains outwardly youthful and innocent.
With this apparent freedom, Dorian degenerates into a life of excess and cruelty - sexual encounters straight and gay, and eventually to blackmail and murder. It is here that Wilde most brilliantly takes aestheticism to its logical conclusion - positing that crime is merely, as art, "a means of procuring sensation". Eighteen years later, returned from his travels, Dorian tries to turn his life around, looking to his portrait as the ultimate barometer of authentic repentance. In this latter portion of the book, we are privy to some of the most high-stakes soul-searching in modern literature. Wilde, an artist who turned his life into art, simultaneously warns us of the dangers of so doing - themes he later explored in De Profundis. A the end of novel, order is restored: art is restored, in its frame, beautiful - life is separated from it, real, variegated.
The new movie of Dorian Gray is, essentially, a failure. Director Oliver Parker and debutant screenwriter Toby Finlay, fail to translate the feeling of menace and corruption to screen, condensing crucial episodes (Sibyl Vane) and introducing new material that amps up the Hollywood action and romance for crass commercial reasons. Ben Barnes is mis-cast as Dorian. He just doesn't have the acting chops to depict inward moral disintegration in the way that, say, Al Pacino did in the GODFATHER movies. Colin Firth is also mis-cast as the corrupting Sir Henry Wootton. He just can't play sinister. Imagine how much better this movie would have been with Eddie Redmayne and Jeremy Irons in the lead roles. In terms of execution, the movie features some of the most unsexy orgy scenes since EYES WIDE OPEN and some of the cheapest CGI. The only plus points are the lovely costunes, settings and the breath of fresh air that is Rebecca Hall's performance as the newly invented daughter of Sir Henry.
DORIAN GRAY is on release in the UK and played Toronto 2009. It will be released in Italy on October 23rd, in Australia on November 12th and in Finland on Christmas Day.