Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of those classic novels that film makers just can’t stay away from, with a steady stream of adaptions appearing over the years. And since the character’s inclusion in the Alan Moore-mangling adaption The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Wilde’s immoral immortal has enjoyed something of a renaissance - with a whopping five adaptions since then - which is somewhat ironic as the eternally youthful Gray didn’t actually feature in the Moore original comics. And now, we have Oliver Parker’s take on the classic tale hitting the screen, bringing old Dorian’s total number of incarnations up to nineteen.
However a brief glance at the character’s filmography reveals an interesting fact – after Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1945, Wilde’s hero vanished from our screens for several decades until resurfacing 1969 in a made for TV movie. The Lewin version, which scooped three Oscars and features George Saunders and Angela Lansbury, is rightly regarded as a classic and the fact that studios left off another adaption for quite some time is testament to its reputation.
Much like the James Whale version of Frankenstein (1931), Lewin’s take on the Dorian Gray story has formed the cinematic template for nearly all other subsequent adaptations. And like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wilde’s original novel is of a more philosophical bent than the horror tale we are familiar with from the screen versions. Therefore it is no surprise that Parker’s Dorian Gray goes down the horror drama route rather than attempt to translate Wilde’s discussions of aestheticism and morality to the screen.
For those of you who don’t know, the plot goes something like this, the young and innocent Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes) comes to London to claim his inheritance, and meets the painter Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin) and the cynical decadent Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth). Hallward paints Gray’s portrait and on it’s completion he wishes that he could stay as young and beautiful as his painting. Under Wotton’s influence, Gray slowly descends into debauchery and it would appear that his wish has been granted. Hallward’s portrait begins to show the toll of his excesses while Gray himself remains unchanged. However as the story progresses it becomes clear than the mutating painting is not only bearing the physical effects of Gray’s lifestyle but is also reflecting the moral corruption of his soul…
Now when I first saw the trailer for this latest version, I did wonder whether this was going to be a Twilight-ised incarnation – basically a lot of mooning over Ben Barnes and playing up the romantic aspects of the plot. But thankfully what Parker has delivered is actually a very solid gothic drama, which nicely blends the literary weight of a BBC adaption with the cinematics of classic era Hammer Films. And like the better works to come out of Bray Studios, the screenplay has added a few new twists to the old tale; streamlining the plot for cinema and adding some touches to freshen up a very familiar plot but nothing as drastic as to damage the integrity of the original story.
However unlike vintage BBC and Hammer productions, Dorian Gray benefits from a far larger budget with which to breathe vivid life to its period setting. Parker presents a vibrant vision of Victorian and Edwardian England, rich in colour and detail and shooting many scenes with an almost painterly eye. And he avoids the action appearing overly stagey, by balancing out the panoramics with some good use of POV shots to immerse the viewer in the world of the film. And special mention must be made of his use of sound and camera shots to portray the painting as a malign entity in itself.
But where this movie really shines is the cast. Colin Firth is simply fantastic as the louche Lord Henry, not only tossing out pearls of cynicism with a venom George Saunders would be proud of, but also portraying the more vulnerable man who hides beneath the veneer of witty decadence. And Firth’s Wotton is well paired with Ben Chaplin’s Hallward, another well seasoned serious actor. Hallward, who acts as the angel to Wotton’s devil on Dorian’s shoulder, is played with warmth and sympathy by Chaplin, and the two have an interesting depth to their relationship. It would be very easy to portray this pair in a stereotypical white hat/black hat manner, however the strength of the performances really show the characters as two old friends who have different viewpoints rather than opposing moral ciphers. And it is clear that Hallward sees the real man behind the façade and furthermore than Wotton is well aware of this.
But the real surprise was Ben Barnes. From his previous appearance as the titular Prince Caspian I wasn’t really expect him to either be able to hold his own against his heavyweight elders or have the chops to carry a film. In the last Narnian epic he was serviceable enough but didn’t impress, though in fairness the role didn’t offer any character much to work with and I felt that the Caspian character suffered from the decision to portray the Telemarines as pseudo Spaniards. However as Dorian Gray he really delivers a great performance and sparks nicely with Firth and Chaplin. Through the course of the film Gray progresses from young naïf to jaded libertine and finally to tortured soul, and Barnes performs all these smoothly and believably. I only hope he can go down the Johnny Depp/George Clooney route and continue to get more actorly roles rather than pin-up showcases.
However the main stumbling block for any adaptation of Wilde’s novel is the matter of how to show Gray’s descent into moral corruption. Apparently for Parker’s version decided to dial back the debauchery scenes in order to secure a 15 rating. However I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that the DVD/Bluray release will come with an unrated director’s cut with the scenes restored. But from what does remain in the film, it’s clear than Parker has gone for an impressionistic rather than explicit approach.
And while some may argue a more graphic sensibility would have given the movie a little more weight, I’m not sure I really agree. Basically, no movie hoping for a mainstream theatre release could really deliver any real scenes of sexual depravity. And with no end of such material readily available to view at the click of a mouse thanks to the masturbation superhighway, no matter how explicit they made the debauches they would still end up looking tame compared to the majority of mainstream internet pornography, never mind the likes of two girls and one cup.
But that said, I would be intrigued to see what was trimmed for the cinema release. It is noticeable that the later montages, when Gray has progressed from basic bawdy fun into darker, seedier debauches featuring more drug uses and S&M overtones, are somewhat shorter so I’m guessing that it is in these sections that have been the most tone toned down. And if they are reinstated for the disc release, I think it would give the movie a touch more bite.
However the bottom line is that this version is focussed on the changing relationships rather than the depictions of sex and violence and is all the more refreshing for it. And if I have one major criticism of the movie, it is that they could have developed some of the drama in more depth. For example, the screenplay introduces a piece of backstory for Dorian which could have been expanded upon and there are a couple of events that had the dramatic mileage for a few extra scenes.
I also have a couple of minor gripes about the depiction of the painting. Firstly, and perhaps most unfairly, it doesn’t better the version in the Lewin production and in fairness I didn’t really expect it too. For that production, a portrait by noted painter of the weird Ivan Albright was comssioned especially for the film and now hangs in a major art gallery (but you can see it here). The second is that I didn’t really like the look of the CGI effects work on it and I think that perhaps some old school 2D painted animation would have worked more effectively. However the effects are used very sparingly so it’s not a huge issue.
That said though, I would point out that these niggles are in areas that could have enhanced the film rather than problems that need fixing. I came out of the cinema feeling pleasantly sated and it’s only with some later reflection that I thought that the script could have done with a little more expansion. As it stands though, Dorian Gray is surprisingly good. It’s stylish without being jarringly modern and evokes a delicious gothic atmosphere, telling a well worn tale with panache.
JIM MOON, 12th September 2009