Dorian Gray Review: Losing Face
Oliver Parker sinks his teeth into the third of his adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s work following The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, with an ambitious reworking of the playwright’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
As the book dabbles in the realm of the supernatural, it does lend itself well to the silver screen though no previous adaptation has done it justice.
The story, faithfully retold, sees Dorian Gray arriving in London to collect his inheritance. He’s naïve, he’s gullible, and a little out of his depth, though he’s utterly beautiful. He lodges with wealthy hedonist Henry Wotton (Colin Firth), beginning a life of corruption and decadence.
Besotted artist Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin) paints a portrait of Dorian which is unveiled to acclaim, though in having his beauty captured on canvas, Dorian makes a bargain with the devil, and as he remains eternally youthful the painting begins to show evidence of his outrageous indulgences.
Gradually Dorian becomes consumed by the painting, obsessed with keeping the visual rendering of his ugly soul locked away, though it’s only when Dorian reaches a point of no return that the film starts to catch its stride.
Everything that goes before this turning point is incredibly dry – not Oscar Wilde dry, but parched to the point of brittle dry. The first 45 minutes or so if its length is spent resembling a throwaway ITV drama in which Colin Firth plays a caricature of himself.
The script is so weak, the dialogue so stiff and predictable that it’s difficult to believe the screenplay is based on Wilde at all. It tastelessly, obviously, tries to be racy in light of all the new historical dramas the Beeb are titillating us with.
However, once the sheer grimness of Dorian’s situation is realised, the fun begins.
Ben Barnes is absolutely perfect as the eternal bachelor Dorian Gray; brutal and remorseless, though totally charismatic.
Happily, a homoerotic subtext throbs throughout, far more in keeping with the novel than other adaptations may not have had the balls to factor (It’s worth mentioning that the book was used as evidence against Wilde when he was tried for sodomy in 1895).
However, the bombastic horror soundtrack that accompanies (the all-too frequent) sightings of the painting and corny fluff-core orgy scenes suggest a lack of confidence in the text Parker is working with.
It would have been far more compelling if the gulf between Victorian polite society and those underlying carnal desires was emphasised. Maybe not as shocking as it would have been then (for we are a desensitised 21st Century audience), but compelling.
Nevertheless once you’re on board, with some ravishing performances (and Colin Firth forgiven) and Victorian London so masterfully animated, it’s thrilling.
We’re all a bit giddy about all things supernatural at the moment… Check out our dazzling review of District 9 here…