The timing couldn’t be better. Fresh from the frolicking and bohemian antics of the BBC’s Desperate Romantics, and with teenage audiences lusting after young and hot vampires both on the small and big screen, the next antihero to beguile us is none other than Dorian Gray, hedonist and libertine extraordinaire.
Parochial orphan Dorian (Ben Barnes) inherits a fortune and moves to London, where he proves easy prey to the temptations laid in front of him by Lord Henry Wooton (Colin Firth). Wooton is an arch-libertine and bon viveur who shows his protégé the way to pleasure before reluctantly retiring into family life and leaving Dorian to explore a life of excesses without boundaries.
Under the protection of a discreetly-presented spell, our hero falls into a life of hedonism and sin, retaining his youth and looks while his portrait rots away in the attic, a visual representation of the degeneration of his soul…
Oliver Parker’s third Oscar Wilde adaptation (after An Ideal Husband and The Importance Of Being Earnest) reveals a city full of gothic key-notes; Dorian’s London is a gorgeous tableux of grey winter hues and moody weather, its men dandyish and impeccably clothed.
This adaptation allows the more homo-erotic elements of the source-novel to shine through, adding to the ambiguity of its protagonist. Yet for all that it’s supposed to show a degenerate lifestyle, Dorian Gray is surprisingly coy at times. It’s a welcome restraint: scenes of debauchery are shown in small details, close-up and in slow motion, avoiding any prolonged or voyeuristic titillation. A lot is left to the imagination; with so much only hinted at or partially-shown, the viewer is left to imagine the rest. Hopefully this will be enough for spoilt young audiences looking for quick visual thrills.
The eagerness with which Dorian allows himself to be sucked into a life of highs, carnal pleasures, murder and immorality is a lttle puzzling: obviously vain, Gray is instantly enamoured by his own likeness in the painting (like everybody else in the movie), but the reason for this propensity to sin is not really explored. Perhaps it’s true that if one could get away with it, one’s morals would instantly be forgotten..?
There’s a lot of looking and fancying, admiring and longing in Dorian Gray. Even the painting gazes back at us, and all this is tragically appropriate for a story which centres upon appearances and an obsession with youth. If there is a point to be made, it seems to regard how our own culture can be so unforgiving of physical imperfection, and how we’re willing to forgive the young and beautiful everything – as if physical beauty couldn’t possibly hide a wicked soul.
Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian in The Narnia Chronicles) pitches Dorian at too low an emotional register sometimes, but perhaps this is exactly the point, as he is supposed to be oblivious to all but his own pleasure. Always beautifully-dressed and groomed, he really looks the part, even if it can be difficult to believe in his later internal conflict of good-versus-evil.
Director Oliver Parker hints at some kind of redemption at the film’s finale, as Dorian’s exit is a self-immolation at the altar of his own wickedness. However, although he has a beautiful presence, you don’t really care much for Gray’s fate.
Colin Firth is a pleasure as the Mephistophelean Henry Wooton, a scene-stealing dandy with all the best lines. It’s a relief to see that Firth has been given a character worthy of his acting chops this time, with not a wet shirt in sight.
The excellent cast also includes Ben Chaplin, Emilia Fox and Rebecca Hall, all given small but pivotal parts.
It may not be the most faithful adaptation of the Wilde novel, but it’s a good ride that’s likely to inspire you to pick up the book afterwards.
Dorian Gray is on general release in the UK