Oliver Parker's Dorian Gray - Reviewed Alex Gomez - PVNN January 02, 2010
Dorian Gray Directed by Oliver Parker, Screenplay by Toby Finlay, Based on the book by Oscar Wilde
I have to say that this film was born of sheer genius. Everything about it was perfect. I have no doubt that if Oscar Wilde were alive today and able to see it, he would love it. The movie is faithful to the novel, but also faithful to Wilde himself, and portrays Dorian's decadence to an extreme that Wilde could not, being bound by the social strictures of Victorian-era England.
On May 25, 1895 Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years' hard labour, because the truth of his various homosexual affairs had finally become public knowledge. I read The Picture of Dorian Gray in my teenage years. As such, I remember little of it, but I do recall being disappointed that there were no direct references to Dorian's homosexual acts, although it was clear from the subtext that he was bisexual. The movie makes these allusions plainly visible; however, they only add to the sinister air of the story.
The film is far more frightening than the book, as I recall it. We should remember that Wilde wrote this book as a morality tale; for Dorian to attain eternal youth and beauty, he must make a kind of pact with the devil. Such a pact is made possible by the fact that the artist Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin) paints his portrait and captures his youth and beauty in it, presumably for all time; also by the presence of the immoral Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth), who points out to Dorian (Ben Barnes) that while his portrait will never age or deteriorate, he himself will.
The moment is ominously highlighted in the film by Lord Henry burning a rose petal over a candle flame as Dorian naively pledges his soul to lust and beauty. Basil warns Dorian from the first not to pay any attention to Henry's speech, further telling him that Henry does not himself believe the degenerate things he says.
The contrast of Dorian's innocence upon his arrival to London (to inherit his grandfather's estate) to his later corruption is aptly portrayed throughout the film. After he disembarks the train at Charing Cross, he makes his way through the crowd outside, looking for his means of transport, stumbling across pickpockets (children who quickly empty his pockets), fortune tellers and some male prostitutes immediately lured by his appearance.
Oblivious to all, he is met by his butler and taken aboard his hansom. When he reenters his manor house, he is eerily reminded of the whippings he suffered at the hands of his grandfather, who blamed him for the death of his daughter, Dorian's mother, who died in childbirth. As a tot fleeing from his grandfather, Dorian hid in an attic closet, which, when he revisits it, is strewn with rats and terrifying memories.
Attended to only by Basil, Dorian quickly becomes bored with posing for the artist and convinces him to take him to Lord Henry's fete. At the party Henry offers Dorian a cigarette from Cairo, which he accepts, only to violently cough when he takes a drag from it. Henry then dismisses his wife as an annoying shrew and takes Basil and Dorian to the 'club,' a place where gin can be bought and drunk freely, to the accompaniment of burlesque performers and whores. Dorian catches the eye of a beautiful young woman as she is leaving with another man.
The next night he goes back to the club alone, and along the way, he sees a poster for a performance of Hamlet. He sees the woman from the previous night on it, and is told that she is playing Ophelia. Still entirely unaware of the effect of his looks on people of both sexes, he awaits the actress in her dressing room and finds that her name is Sybil Vane (Rachel Hurd-Wood), and that the man she exited the club with was her brother Jimmy (James Hane).
The next day Sybil is visiting him at the manor and once within it, Dorian invites her to stay the night; he proposes marriage, she accepts and they make love. The next day at Henry's home he tells his new friends of his plans to marry Sybil. He invites his friends to her performance, not realizing that they are in no way inclined to visit such a low-class environment. Henry then takes him to a brothel, where Dorian drinks absinthe, smokes opium and becomes embroiled in an orgy with several 'loose' women.
Back at the manor, Henry and he meet with Sybil, who tells them that she didn't see them in the audience. After Henry leaves, Dorian admits to her that he didn't go to see her at all, but stayed all night at the 'club.' Sybil is distraught because she has already given herself to Dorian and Henry has convinced him not to marry her. The next day he is visited by Jimmy, Sybil's brother, and told that she drowned herself in the Thames. Jimmy then accosts Dorian, only to be pulled away by the others surrounding him. Henry dismisses this event by telling Dorian that Sybil's suicide is not his responsibility.
From here, the film takes us to Dorian's chain of seductions (of a debutante and her mother, of Basil, of various self-indulgent members of the English upper classes from either sex, at a delirious costume party he hosts in his manor). Basil has been invited to exhibit his work in Paris and begs Dorian to lend him the portrait he painted of him, but as Dorian has learnt that the painting scars while he himself doesn't, and sneers with every crime he commits.
At one point, a maggot writhes out of its painted eye. He refuses to give it to Basil, having locked it away in the attic with his evil memories. After much persistence on the part of the artist, he shows it to Basil, only to strangle him afterwards with his own scarf. Then Dorian cuts Basil's body to pieces and dumps it in the river.
After he attends Basil's funeral, Dorian tells Henry that he wants to travel the world and asks him to come with him. Henry wistfully tells him he'd like to, but as his wife is due to give birth he can't. While he is away, Dorian writes Henry about his lurid adventures, adding to Henry's now growing disgust.
Dorian returns to London nearly two decades later, exactly the same as he left-to his former friends' amazement. Dorian immediately attracts the notice of Henry's daughter Emily (Rebecca Hall), an aspiring photographer, and as Dorian has repented to a priest and is attempting to be good again, he allows himself to love her, much to her father's dismay.
By the end of the movie the viewer will have felt her/himself pulled apart by conflicting emotions, left undecided, and completely spooked by its circumstances.
I have always loved period films, and as such this one will not disappoint. On its own, Dorian Gray is brilliant, not only for the directing, acting and sets, but for the cinematography, which conveys mood chillingly and accurately.Alex Gomez is an award-winning writer, who'd die if he couldn't write. To date, he has written numerous short stories, hundreds of articles and two serious novels.