Out: September 9, 2009
Okay, so I love Oscar Wilde. I love his put-downs, his witticisms, his lurid sex life and his writing. This, of course, includes his one and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1890 to great notoriety and criticism. If the Victorians were shocked by the debauched acts of the novel’s eponymous anti-hero, a modern-day readership is probably just as shocked that it’s not nearly shocking enough.
But forget reading, we’re here to talk about films, and a new adaptation of Dorian Gray (they’ve dropped the prefixing three words) is hitting the big screen.
Starring Ben Barnes as the beautiful Dorian, the story – in a nutshell – follows young Dorian after he moves to London to inherit his late uncle’s house. Entering onto the social scene, he encounters two gentlemen who become his friends and initially exert the biggest influence over him: artist Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin) and aristo Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth). Both enamoured with the gorgeous young man, they devote their time taking him under their wing. Basil decides to paint his portrait and once Dorian sees it, realising his incredible beauty for the first time, he makes a pact that instead of himself growing old and decrepit, the picture will ensnare his soul and suffer instead – he will remain forever young. Lots of debauchery and crime ensues, with Dorian not ageing a day, whereas the picture becomes uglier and uglier with every sin committed (sprouting maggots at one point – lovely).
So what of the 21st Century Dorian? Ben Barnes is actually a very good fit in the role. He is beautiful in a pretty boy way and is thus able to project a butter-wouldn’t-melt aura even when he’s doing his worst. And he does some pretty fine acting to boot.
Ben Chaplin is good as artist Basil and Colin Firth does well as an older and supposedly wiser gentleman – with added eyeliner. The only thing that sort of jarred with me was the presence of his daughter, Emily Wotton, played by Rebecca Hall. Not in Wilde’s original novel, the character was created in order to give Henry Wotton a ‘moral compass,’ according to director, Oliver Parker. But I thought the point was that no matter how lurid and scandalous Henry Wotton appears and would like to be, he never goes as far as Dorian does because he has his own set of principles – and he doesn’t need a daughter to give him that grounding. Erm, rant over.
Back in 1945, the first film adaptation of the novel starred Hurd Hatfield as Dorian and Angela Lansbury as his doomed lover, Sybal Vane was released. I remember seeing this when I was younger (after reading the novel) and being just a little bit terrified. Although the 2009 version didn’t make me tremble or even go ‘wow’, it’s still a very beautiful film. And therein is probably it’s best element: the gothic Victoriana of the sets and the costumes is just wonderful and, to be fair, as a piece of cinema it does work well. I’d just rather read the book.