Dorian Gray

Director    Oliver Parker
Starring    Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Ben Chaplin, Rebecca Hall, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Emilia Fox
Release    TBC (US) 9 SEP (UK)    Certificate 15
3 stars


10th September 2009

When Oscar Wilde wasn't declaring his own genius, others did it for him. They still do; the catalogue of his works is considered essential for literary study. What's surprising then about this big screen adaptation of his only novel, A Picture of Dorian Gray, is the liberty taken with the source material.

In fact, if you've seen the poster for this version of the novel, you might even be forgiven for thinking it was advertising a new instalment of the Underworld franchise, such is the misleading marketing that accompanies this sexed-up, more 'supernatural' take on the classic tale.

The story goes that innocent and impressionable Dorian Gray (Barnes) declares that he would trade his soul to have his youth and beauty last forever, just as it would in his newly-painted portrait by artist Basil Hallward (Chaplin). At the same time, cynical socialite Lord Henry 'Harry' Wotton (Firth) takes Dorian under his wing and introduces him to host of sinful pleasures, encouraging him to lead an increasingly hedonistic lifestyle, which corrupts his purity.

[gallery]While Dorian's visage remains unsullied and forever beautiful, however, he soon discovers that the sins he commits are instead taking their toll on his portrait, so that it reflects his twisted and ever-more perverted soul. And that's where we leave Oscar Wilde, brilliant author of the classic novel which has become a stalwart of the literary canon for decades. Now it's over to you, first-time screenwriter Toby Finlay.

After Dorian goes away to 'drink deeply' of the pleasures of the world, he comes back to London after many years. Here, he finds his old social circle, all in their twilight years and all astonished at his still-youthful appearance. More importantly, he meets Harry's daughter, Emily (Hall), who helps him to realise that he must change his pleasure-seeking ways and offers him a chance at redemption. That is, of course, if he can keep her from finding out the painted secret he keeps locked away in the attic.

The biggest problem with cramming all of the material from the novel into two-thirds of the movie is not that it does an injustice to Wilde's book, but that it does an injustice to the film itself. As Dorian embarks downward on his moral slope, events are rushed along to get to the juicy stuff. Dorian has a cigarette, has some gin, has sex, has a threesome...and then he's a full-blown hedonist. Even his brief romance with Sybil Vane, itself a significant plot in the novel, is dealt with quickly here, bearing little regard to the importance it has in relation to Dorian's later actions.

Then there's the entirely-new, created-for-you-lucky-film-fans third act which, frankly, pisses all over the point of Wilde's original tale. The point being: the corruption of morality - unforgivable sins and their consequences. To show Dorian full of remorse at his actions, misses an opportunity to allow for a contemplation of the themes. We leave the film aware of Dorian's conscience, but readers of Wilde's novel are left only aware of their own conscience and this has the far bigger impact.

All is not completely lost, though. Where the film remains faithful to the source, it is often engaging; with more than a few amusing moments to remind us why Wilde's greatest legacy are his many witticisms. While Ben Barnes is a mixed bag as Dorian Gray - making a smooth transition from wide-eyed naivety to seductive cruelty, but playing dramatic scenes with too much desperation - the supporting cast pick up the slack.

In particular, Colin Firth, as the charmingly mischievous Harry, has great fun spouting epigrams and bon mots like he were Wilde himself, eschewing responsibility but promoting recklessness with wisdom like, "There's only one way to get rid of temptation, and that's to yield to it." Ben Chaplin's Basil Hallward is also effective as the cautious moral anchor often ignored by Dorian. His suspiciousness of Dorian's behaviour leads to what would be the first truly shocking moment of the film had the opening scene not allowed viewers to guess what's coming.

The portrait itself becomes a more literal monster than the novel's metaphor and immediately raises concerns about over-emphasis on the 'horror' aspect of the story. Thankfully, however, the picture is shown sparingly, relying more on creeping tension than on cheap scares.

And while the introduction of computer-generated devilry and sorcery towards the end of the movie might at first seem out of place, it does make for a more exciting climax to a film that has seemed desperate to break free of its periodic constraints from the start.

Fans of the novel will no doubt look upon the film with as much disdain as the characters who look upon Dorian's picture in the film, but it is, at least, an enjoyable mess. Besides, it glosses over issues of morality in favour of over-indulging on sex and scandal - and who's to say Wilde himself wouldn't approve of that?

Follow us on Twitter @The_Shiznit for more fun features, film reviews and occasional commentary on what the best type of crisps are.
We are using Patreon to cover our hosting fees. So please consider chucking a few digital pennies our way by clicking on this link. Thanks!

Share This