Director: Oliver Parker
Producer: Barnaby Thompson. Writer: Toby Finlay. Camera: Roger Pratt. Music: Charlie Mole. Sets: John Beard.
Colin Firth, Ben Barnes, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Rebecca Hall, Emilia Fox, Ben Chaplin, Fiona Shaw, Caroline Goodall, Maryam D’abo, Douglas Henshall, Jo Woodcock.
Young and impressionable heir Dorian Gray (Barnes) returns to London and the large, mouldering house and fortune he has inherited. Instantly befriended by the older, decadent and wicked Lord Henry Wootton (Firth) and his artist friend Basil Hallward (Chaplin), he is soon plunged into a world of heavy drinking, opium taking, casual sex and late-night orgies. Dorian makes an accidental Faustian pact to never grow old whilst always indulging in life’s pleasures, a deal captured in Hallward’s painting of him. But as Dorian enjoys the hedonistic pleasures of London and remains fresh faced and handsome, the image of him in the portrait slowly begins to age and decay, reflecting the moral rot of his character.
Playwright Oscar Wilde’s only novel, a classic of Victorian Gothic horror, has been filmed and staged many times over, even being made into a ballet. Here it is dusted off again and, despite the bustles, bodices and bowler hats on display, this time it is aimed squarely at a 21st century, hardcore clubbing audience in their twenties.
The film is now shorn of Wilde’s full title The Picture of Dorian Gray, presumably to focus attention even more tightly on the narcissistic main character. It also spotlights the awkwardness of playing him for the chosen actor.
Dorian Gray is a difficult role to fulfil. Described throughout Wilde’s book as having heart-stopping beauty, he is also a ruthlessly cruel, self-obsessed aesthete with irresistible charisma. The problem for most dramatists adapting the novel is that Dorian always ends up looking lovely whilst everyone else does the wit and schmoozing. Narnia’s Barnes gets the dubious honour of portraing the titular cad and promptly plays Dorian with all the conviction of a blindfolded catwalk model on roller-skates; unbalanced, directionless.
Predictably then it’s left to those in the other roles to bolster the film. Firth plays Lord Wooton with lip-smacking wit and frivolity. He had been the darling of British drawing room theatre and film long before he won his Oscar for The King’s Speech, playing heroic if slightly bland Englishmen of upstanding virtue (his little sister from TV’s Pride and Prejudice, Fox, even plays his wife here). It is a complete guilty pleasure to see him exercising his villainous muscles for once and helping to bring the script’s cutting witticisms to life.
Writer Finlay has scribbled a gamier, more licentious version of the book to keep it relevant to modern eyes, with a heavy emphasis on class A substances, binge drinking and hetero and homo-sex (the latter never being more than a subtle whisper in Wilde’s writing, for obvious reasons) but he still manages, as movie mogul Sam Goldwyn once cleverly put it, to “bring it bang up to date with some snappy 19th Century dialogue”. There is a musty, old fashioned feel to the drama despite the moral anachronisms.
Parker, a bit of a Wilde cinema expert after writing and directing acclaimed star-heavy versions of The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, is here reduced to the director’s chair only and it’s interesting to ponder how much swifter and smarter this fluffy piece might have been if he’d had more singular control. But what we are left with is a pretty, funny and engaging ornament that manages to cast a certain spell, rather like the lead character.