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Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Wilde’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 17th 2009:

…moving on, we come to Dorian Gray, the latest Oscar Wilde adaptation from Oliver Parker, who appears to be specialising in this rather niche area. This famous tale of a corrupted immortal has of course been brought to the screen many times before, and Parker’s version is more faithful to the novel than many (although given that the last two I saw featured Gray as an indestructible supervillain in league with Professor Moriarty, and a deranged polymath space-hermit with nefarious plans for Blake’s Seven, that isn’t saying much). Come to think of it, Parker’s film features one character getting hand relief and someone else being hit by a tube train, neither of which happened in the version of the book that I read, so maybe I’m talking out of the back of my neck on this one (as usual).

Well anyway. This is the story of wealthy young Victorian gentleman Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes), an angel-faced young innocent who falls into the orbit of up-and-coming painter Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin, looking rather like Antonio Banderas here) and studiedly amoral hedonist Henry Wotton (Colin Firth cast against type). Dorian’s youth and beauty sway everyone he comes across, but for reasons the film never quite makes fully clear he becomes strangely linked to a portrait of him painted by Basil. In a reversal of what normally happens, as time passes Dorian remains untouched by the passage of time and the external ravages of his excessive lifestyle, while his image in the picture withers and decays…

This isn’t actually an out-and-out bad film, but I can see it really struggling to find an audience. The period settings (the 1890s and 1910s) are well-mounted, but the tone and subject-matter aren’t really your standard costume drama fare. On the other hand, the horror and evil and sin will seem very tame indeed to anyone raised on a diet of modern movies. Dorian’s lifestyle just doesn’t seem very transgressive by modern standards, there’s virtually no blood or gore, and the orgy scenes are just a bit too genteel given things like Donkey Punch have been doing the rounds for years. Parker’s direction is occasionally imaginative but in many ways this film could have been made by Hammer 40 years ago with hardly any changes required. (Well… as may in fact be obligatory in any movie from a Wilde story these days, it doesn’t shy away from the subtext of a story of older, experienced men wanting to win over and corrupt a beautiful young boy. But it does seem a bit of an afterthought and most of the rumpo is thoroughly heterosexual in nature, and in that uniquely kinky late Victorian vein, to boot.)

Having said that, the movie intelligently projects the second half of the story into a future Wilde himself never lived to see (shame they couldn’t have thought up a way to do the first half as period and the second as present day without rewriting the story even more than they do here, as it would’ve given the film a distinct identity of its own) and the make-up and visual effects are very good. There are plenty of well-known faces in the cast, many of them in surprisingly small parts (I get the impression most of Douglas Henshall’s scenes wound up on the cutting room floor, or more likely these days in the recycle bin of the editing PC’s desktop; might as well have stayed on Primeval till the end, Douggie [Written before they revived the show, obviously – A]), as well as a few promising newcomers like Rebecca Hall and Rachel Hurd-Wood. Colin Firth is okay when rattling out epigrams like a witty Gatling gun but on the whole he seems ill-at-ease in a part rather at odds with his normal persona.

The real problem in the acting department is that Ben Barnes doesn’t really have the chops to depict Dorian’s gradual slide into corruption and degeneracy. At the start of the story he’s very Fotherington-Thomas-ish and comes across not so much as naive as just a bit dim-witted. Admittedly he improves as the film goes on but I would venture to suggest that no-one, except possibly extremely hormonal teenage girls with a thing about bad boys with good hair, will care overly much about what happens to him or his picture. Rather ironically for a film about a character who decides to seize life and live it to the utmost with terrible results, Dorian Gray is much too timid in nearly every part of its storytelling. And while the results aren’t exactly terrible, they’re not particularly memorable or praiseworthy either.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 19th September 2002:

Of all the great British film companies of yesteryear, Ealing Studios is second only to Hammer in terms of reputation and brand recognition. In the 1940s and 50s they released a string of razor-sharp and socially astute comedies about the British character and way of life, many of which are on the list of gold-plated all-time classics: The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and (my personal favourite) The Ladykillers.

Well, guess what – Ealing are back in business and their first release in this, their centenary year is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, adapted and directed by Oliver Parker. It’s the story of fairly strait-laced Edwardian gent John Worthing (Colin Firth), who lives in the countryside most of the time, and who has invented a fictitious brother Ernest whom he pretends to be when in town visiting his ladyfriend Gwendoline (Frances O’Connor) (she has a thing about men called Ernest). Meanwhile his caddish friend Algy (Rupert Everett), smitten with John’s ward Cecily (bussed-in American starlet Reese Witherspoon), pops down to the country to see her, masquerading as the non-existent Ernest too (she also has a thing about men called Ernest). When the two ladies both get engaged to ‘Ernest’, not realising he’s two different men, things get complicated – especially with Gwendoline’s terrifying mother (Dame Judi Dench) on the warpath…

It’s clear from the start that The Importance Of Being Earnest is aiming to be the kind of high-quality literary adaptation that we have a reputation for doing quite well in this country. And the production values are appropriately high, and the cast has – mmmmm! – that cachet of class about it: Anna Massey and Tom Wilkinson are in there too.

But for all these good intentions, the producers have obviously decided to go for the multiplex dollar. One can excuse the imported American star, as many a British film that can’t afford Hugh Grant opts to hire one, but the big surprise here is the nature of the comedy. Think Oscar Wilde and you think of throwaway witty aphorisms, social comment, a touch of satire and maybe Stephen Fry in a wig (if you’re me you also think of Blake’s 7 and Stuart Townsend’s appearance as Dorian Grey in next summer’s blockbuster The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but in this film the comedy is much, much broader. There is a quite shocking level of over-acting from virtually the entire cast (Dame Judi is obviously the exception) and the script even includes pratfalls and a running gag about tattooed arses in its relentless pursuit of big laughs. I got the strong impression the cast enjoyed making the film more than I enjoyed watching it, which is never a good sign.

And it doesn’t feel like an Ealing comedy, either. It doesn’t have the edge, or insight, or lack of sentimentality: it’s just a very broad, very gentle, knockabout romantic comedy. Wilde’s most famous lines all show up but they seem weirdly out of place. More ambition would have been better. This isn’t a bad film, it’s actually quite amusing – but, for all its CGI London skyline and big name cast, it feels more like a TV adaptation than a film in own right. Gosford Park for people with short attention spans: if you want to see it, you’ll lose nothing by waiting for the TV premiere.

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