Released in September 2009, Ealing Studios’ Dorian Gray arrived on our cinema screens with more of a whimper than a bang. And while it may be the ideal time for a dark morality tale of hedonistic excess and the pursuit of eternal beauty, the latest adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic on DVD fails to capture this reviewer’s soul.
Dorian (Ben Barnes, Prince Caspian) is beautiful, innocent and vain; he’s a perfect subject for artist Basil Hallward’s latest masterpiece, and a fresh-faced naïf ripe for corruption by Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth, having a crack at rakish-and-bitter instead of stuffy-and-endearing and for the most part succeeding).
Under Wotton’s influence Dorian descends into a world given over to debauchery of all kinds, featuring lashings of gin and a bevy of prostitutes from Rent-a-Wench Central Casting. And while he retains his youth and beauty, the portrait he keeps locked in the attic grows increasingly twisted and hideous (and starts to look a bit like Walter Donovan at the end of Indy 3)…
Dorian’s transformation into a sociopathic libertine is chronicled in a series of soft-focus flashes – all ripped bodices, mussed sheets and breasts a-quiver – interspersed with his oh-so-civilised hobnobbing with the aristocracy. It all happens a little too fast to be convincing, but at least it stops short of tipping over into full-blown soft porn.
The homoeroticism hinted at in the book is brought very much to the fore too, especially with regard to Basil’s infatuation with Dorian. Ben Chaplin as the lovelorn artist gives perhaps the best performance in the film, all longing glances and helpless restraint. It’s nowhere near as subtle as his portrayal in the book, but then no one’s going to put the filmmakers on trial for depicting it today.
Oliver Parker is no stranger to Wilde’s work, having previously directed versions of An Ideal Husband and The Importance Of Being Earnest. For the most part, he and screenwriter Toby Finlay stay faithful to the source. Finlay keeps a fair amount of the original’s wit, but wisely stays away from stringing together a series of epigrams from Oscar Wilde’s Wikiquote page and calling it an adaptation. There’s a really rather silly scene in the Underground which jars a little, but since following the text too closely at that point would have resulted in some pretty dull cinema, its inclusion is understandable, if poorly-executed.
A major wrong note is struck when Dorian rejects fiancée Sibyl Vane (a wide-eyed and childlike Rachel Hurd-Wood). Their parting differs significantly from the book, and isn’t anywhere near as tense or dramatic as it should be.
Wilde purists may be a little put out too at the invention of Wotton’s suffragette daughter Emily; thankfully she’s played by the always-brilliant Rebecca Hall, who brings liveliness and likeability to a character whose sole purpose is to act as Dorian’s redeemer. And underused as Hall is, at least she isn’t booted into the background like Fiona Shaw and Douglas Henshall, whose key scenes were left on the cutting room floor, rendering their presence completely pointless.
A more serious flaw is Ben Barnes’ performance as Dorian. While he’s pretty enough for the part, we see little of his internal struggle and he seems to be striving for almost Keanu-like levels of blandness. For the first half of the film, the portrait has more charisma. But then, it’s a very tough part to play well.
Dorian is simply more metaphor than character. It’s what makes The Picture Of Dorian Gray such a difficult piece to translate to film. It’s more satire and philosophical exercise than thriller, and who’s going to spend an evening watching two hours of existential pondering on the value of beauty?
(Actually, throw in a bottle of red and some posh crisps and that sounds like a pretty good Friday night, but maybe that’s just me…)
The elements of horror – which, if done right, could sell a story that’s essentially one big thought exercise – don’t quite succeed either. It’s trying for Gothic and it begins well, with Dorian stabbing an unseen victim and dumping the body in the Thames, but it’s just not brave enough to plunge into the dark with any real conviction (although the scene in which Dorian gives up his soul should be, and is, very subtly done).
The portrait moves, bleeds and emits the odd death-rattle, but it’s unintentionally funny when it should be unsettling. The terrible CGI on display is clearly down to a tiny FX budget, but a lot can be done with atmosphere, lighting and colour, and it feels as though an opportunity has been missed here to do something fresh and original. It’s a film that can’t decide what it wants to be and ends up a mish-mash of thriller, chiller and strained love story with a dull aesthetic that doesn’t lift it above the ordinary.
A competent piece of work that falls short of achieving greatness, Dorian Gray is worth a look for those who take their period drama with a touch of the macabre, and at least it’ll scrub that bearded twit from LXG out of our brains.
But while Dorian’s pretty face may stand the test of time, I’m not sure this film will.
The ‘Making Of’ documentary holds some value for those interested in comparing the film with the source material, but steer clear if creative types holding forth on very luvvie-ish subjects is likely to get on your nerves. Same goes for the commentary with Parker and Finlay.
Other than that, points of interest are thin on the ground. There’s a handful of half-hearted ‘behind the scenes’ snippets which deserved further exploration, particularly with regards to the creation of the painting and the special effects (rubbish though they were).
There’s also a costume gallery, and an out-of-place blooper reel featuring Ben Barnes giggling a lot. Neither brings much to the table.
Much like the film itself then: not bad, could do better.
Dorian Gray is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.