Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dorian Gray Movie Review: Where, Oh Where Has My Little Soul Gone?

This film has been released commercially in some European markets and will get a direct-to-DVD release in the US on 10 August.

In Oliver Parker’s latest Oscar Wilde adaptation (with a screenplay by novice Toby Finlay), Dorian Gray, Ben Barnes spends most of his time in the titular role standing around looking pretty. And that’s pretty much what Wilde’s original novel was about, wasn’t it? It was about this beautiful young man who stays beautiful.

No it wasn’t! It was a serious examination of the power of vanity on the human soul and the consequences of trading your soul for everlasting beauty. The novel was infused with Wilde’s classic wit, expressed mostly through the character of Lord Henry Wotton, mostly absent here except for the occasional biting comment expertly delivered by Colin Firth, who is the only actor in the film who seems up to the challenge of, you know, acting.

Parker has done fine work as writer and director of recent film versions of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, but he’s completely off the mark here working from Finlay’s pedestrian script. But even his direction takes a back seat from the very opening which gives us one of those awful sequences meant to illustrate a sense of wonderment about a place as Dorian arrives in London, eyes aglow at the hustle and bustle as, in the space of a single minute, he encounters such Dickensian characters as begging children, prostitutes and street thugs. He employs Charlie Mole’s musical score in such a way as to create a constant feeling of eeriness in scenes that should otherwise be completely normal, as when Dorian and his fiancĂ©, Sybil Vane (Rachel Hurd-Wood) share intimate moments together.

Dorian, who has been away getting his education, has returned to claim his inheritance of the family estate and vast wealth. His only other gifts are youth and beauty, elegantly captured in a portrait painted by Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin) and hung in the foyer opposite a stern-looking portrait of Dorian’s grandfather. All society is agog at the masterful painting and as Lord Henry slowly corrupts Dorian into a life of hedonism, he utters something along the way about his willingness to trade his soul for the ability to avoid corruption.

Soon, Dorian begins to realize that the picture is taking on all negative physical attributes that he has (the scars on his back, a recent cut on his hand). He hides the portrait in the attic and becomes what Lord Henry preaches, but never had the courage to embody. He drinks, fornicates, and frequents opium dens. He coldly rejects Sybil, leading her to a self-induced demise and, in a literal depiction of “I could show you, but then I’d have to kill you” he murders Basil. All the while the portrait bears the marks of a corrupt soul, which is kept hidden from us until late in the film save a few parting glances that involve movement beneath the surface and grub worms falling to the floor. Why exactly the corruption of the soul necessarily involves vermin living in the painting is a matter open to debate, I suppose. It seems to me a grotesquery invented by Finlay to add a bit of gothic horror, or perhaps to summon Dante.

The small matter of the long passage of time in the novel is curtly dealt with by having Dorian go on “a trip” for about 25 years. Upon his return he is given a welcoming party at which all his old acquaintances are aghast at his remarkably unchanged appearance. What was depicted as a gradual transition that people would hardly have noticed incrementally in the novel is altered to a sudden revelation in the film. Yet in spite of what should be a shock likely to induce a coronary, everyone simply accepts Dorian’s appearance as a matter of fact.

With the passage of time comes the aged appearance of Lord Henry and the others, but also the coming of age of Henry’s daughter, Emily (Rebecca Hall), another invention for the film. She provides Dorian a late stage love interest, an uncorrupted young woman who Dorian sees as an opportunity for redemption. Lord Henry suspects dark underpinnings to Dorian’s secret and is hardly willing to permit his daughter to fall into the hands of the monster he ostensibly created.

Finlay’s alteration of the source material provides for a character change in Lord Henry where little existed before. By giving him a daughter in need of protection he allows him something to live for more important than himself. After the final climax and the revelation of the ghastly portrait, an absolutely ridiculous sequence of visual effects meant to induce chills and gasps, but more likely to produce laughter, Finlay gives us a coda which changes the focus of the story from Dorian to Henry.

It is possible to adapt a novel, changing the focus from one character to another, but this is hardly a successful example of the exercise. Parker goes to great lengths to make a chilling movie, but the most frightening aspect of it is how wildly he misses the soul of Wilde’s novel.

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