Dorian Gray

2009-09-11 | |

He is every young man's dream, and every pleasure-seeker's nightmare; he is what old men seek out, and what loveless women cling to; the reflection of a bible in a blood-stained knife; the pawprint of a fox by a chicken-coop. He is Oscar Wilde's finest creation, a man ahead of his time - living in the 21st century, while stuck in the 19th.

The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in 1890, and revised in 1891, by Oscar Wilde, who had already written a few plays and short stories by this time. It's subject matter was controversial, espousing a philosophy of 'new hedonism' - everyone must fulfil their desires, as the only things in life worth a damn are passion and fulfilment - but, it also kills off the lead by driving him insane with the way he literally sees the changes of his soul within the painting.

The film, based loosely on the novel, is a cinematic romp that doesn't necessarily have to be watched by those who have read Wilde's original. While it sticks to the framework, and some key areas are explored, it's been updated for the bloody and sex-hungry modern audience. Basil Hallward still dies, as in the book; but Alan Campbell is now working for Broadmoor Hospital, not as a chemist who disposes of the body. Sybil Vane still commits suicide, but doesn't overdose; she dies like Ophelia, whom she is seen playing early on in the theatre. Dorian's portrait still ages and withers, but it acts less as a portrait of his soul, and more of a healing factor, taking away his wounds, when he should already be dead...

On the acting side of things, I had few problems: Colin Firth played a largely bastardised version of Henry Wotton, who, far from being the little influence on Dorian in the novel, is now a fullblown hellraiser in London; but he played him believably. Ben Chaplin managed to get into Basil Hallward's mindset, of the man who is involved but never wants to be; of the conscience; and he brought the character to life. Credit where credit is due must also go to Rebecca Hall for Emily Wotton, a character not seen in the original novel, but brought in to make even more twists for the audience; at least she could act.

Which is not what could be said for Rachel Hurd-Wood, playing Sibyl Vane. Her expressions and mannerisms were so wooden, I may as well have watched a mannequin, or a ventriloquist's dummy, for the short space of time she was on screen. If there was any passion in the part of Sibyl, it was really left on the page. Even Johnny Harris' James Vane wasn't that good; he was acting on film as though it were for TV. He didn't seem deranged; he seemed like he was hoping for the cut to the next scene whenever he welled-up with tears...

But the real star of the show had to be Ben Barnes. His mood swings; his timing; his impeccable 'good looks'. He fit the role of the impetuous young Dorian perfectly. If I hadn't sat there with my reviewer's head on, thinking "This is a film. It is an alright film", I think I could possibly believe that I was looking at Dorian Gray himself in Ben Barnes. There were no flaws I could pick up on; he had it all.

Whoever wrote the script, though, needs a pat on the back and a slap 'round the head. It was a stroke of genius to send Dorian off for 25 years, long enough for Lord Henry to have a daughter; a love interest with a twist; and 25 years is long enough for the others to visibly age dramatically, and for times to change politically and socially; and Dorian ends up standing out like a sore thumb.
However, writing in a sex scene on every page makes it less 1891, and more 1991. We're not watching "Ron Jeremy's Finest Orgies" here, we're watching Dorian Gray. But, that's only minor. What did tickle me in the plot is James Vane's untimely demise - without giving away too much, let's just say "Think Final Destination, and then set it around 1915..." - sadly, I was amongst only 5 people in a packed cinema to chuckle at that scene.

Overall, what we're looking at isn't an adaptation of Dorian Gray that is to the letter; we're looking at an adaptation of the backbone of Dorian Gray; of the basics. If Oscar Wilde was alive, who knows how he'd take it. I'd like to think part of him would enjoy it, watching his character debauch himself in sex, drugs, and boxing; but, I also thought that with all the additions made to it, perhaps old Oscar is pirouetting in his grave...

Overall: 8/10 - It's a film, for a modern audience, and it ticks all the boxes. It was never going to be a straight adaptation; so, we have to live with what is 'entertaining' these days.

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