By Scott Martin
Dorian Gray, UK, 2009
Directed by Oliver Parker
You would think that turning an Oscar Wilde novel into a sensationalized, nearly exploitative camp piece of pulp fiction might prove impossible, but Oliver Parker would prove you wrong; shamefully so, seeing as how his adaptations of other Wilde works, like An Ideal Husband (1999) or The Importance of Being Earnest (2002), have been rightly lauded. Even more amazing, Dorian Gray failed to find a distributor in the United States, and was doomed to a direct-to-DVD release here, after a theatrical release in the United Kingdom. As it stands, though, Dorian Gray is all about the atmosphere in this version, rather than the preservation of Wilde’s wit or the story itself. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what we’re left with at the end of the film; lots of pomp, but very little circumstance.
Honestly, it might be more accurate to consider this as a prequel to Stephen Norrington’s 2003 Alan Moore adaptation The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Of course, this is an adaptation of the 1891 Oscar Wilde novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, but so little is done to honor the work that it seems cruel to connect the two. The ideas behind the two frames remain the same, but the results are entirely different. Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes), a youthful man of twenty or so, inherits a fortune after his father passes away. With that fortune comes the posh lifestyle of the early 20th century and a slew of new friends, the most important of which proves to be a man named Henry Wotton (an excellent Colin Firth), who teaches young Dorian to not be afraid of pleasure in all its forms, and another named Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), who paints a wonderful portrait of Dorian and wishes to put it on display. Of course, he can’t. Why? Because the Dorian in the picture ages, rather than Dorian himself, and the life Dorian is leading – a life bitter with corruption and decadence – isn’t to kind to him.
Parker does his best to imbue all sorts of Gothic horror tricks into his film, and most of what I imagine he learned in film school; tilted camera angles, jump scenes, and an eerie gray palate dominate the film’s production design. Unfortunately, the design of the film turns sour as the series of events unfold; it acts as a sort of modernization to a classic tale that should be timeless. The music has the odd inclusion of an electric guitar, if that’s any indication, and the film suffers from what I call “Yesterday Syndrome,” an affliction found in most period pieces these days, in which a film taking place in days long ago can’t help but seem like it was filmed yesterday, and everyone involved is merely playing dress-up. Of course, that’s the actual case, but a good period piece completely immerses you in the time indicated, and doesn’t leave any room for question. Think of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005) for an example of a good period piece; nothing seemed forced, and certainly everything looked like it was from that time. Dorian Gray, however, quite literally seems like a costume party or a murder-mystery dinner.
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing hanging over the whole project is the fact that Ben Barnes can’t carry the weight of the film. His Dorian is one-note, and that note is whiny and scratchy. Gray is supposed to be a charming individual, alarmingly so, but Barnes drains him of any empathy or likability, making the point of the film completely null and void. A man sells his soul to retain his youth and beauty (of which Barnes has plenty to spare), only to have it ripped away in a moment of transcendence. There’s a lot to connect to in the novel: feelings of longing and a desperate need to be connected with one’s youth. But at what price? Certainly, in this film, the price was the feel of the film itself. I can’t tell you what the story requires, I can only tell you that what Parker tried to achieve has been done to greater effect in the past. There are a handful of adaptations, each of which is much easier to swallow than this particular try.
Thankfully, there is one thing that keeps the film from being an utter failure, which is Firth’s performance as Henry Wotton, a slimy man living life vicariously through his banal philosophies and through the eternally young Dorian himself. He introduces Dorian to women, alcohol, drugs, and “fun,” as he sees it. He claims that “conscience is only a polite term for cowardice,” and because Dorian is apparently so susceptible to peer pressure, he eats up every word and takes it on as a mantra. Of course, the caveat to Henry is that he’s a married man with a child on the way. He doesn’t want to give in to his natural design, but he has to, because even a man like Henry understands right from wrong and responsibility, two qualities which Dorian has grown to lack. Not the Dorian in the novel, mind you, but the Dorian in this film. Even more than Barnes’s performance, that might be the film’s greatest failing – a lack of understanding of who Dorian Gray actually is. Read the novel (it’s a quick, easy read) and find out; the two are definitely not one and the same. Ben Chaplin and Rebecca Hall (as Henry’s daughter) each do their best to find footing in an uneven playground; solid performances, but not enough to rise above the rubble around them.
Hopefully, this film will only age as well as Dorian’s portrait, and if this ever becomes the definitive film version of the novel, all hope might as well be lost. It needs a better treatment. I was raised to be quite particular about adaptations, and of Wilde’s work, well, I’m not the most well-versed man, but I know my way around it. I can tepidly recommend the other, earlier, less drab versions of the novel, but I can only wholeheartedly recommend the novel itself. It’s the true work and has what this film doesn’t: an understanding of the lead character, an appropriately placed atmosphere, and an appreciation of the time in which it takes place. Also, Wilde’s words are best when coming from the man himself. The novel also lacks Barnes’s performance, which is probably the best thing about it, in retrospect.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com