Dorian Gray

Dorian Gray


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

When one hears that a classic work like Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray has been 'updated', one's first reaction is often dismay. Why do studios insist on taking stories which work beautifully as they are and trying to outdo them?

It's a relief then, to find that in this case the updating simply involves the introduction of a new character late in the narrative and doesn't distort the story very much. This film is set in the same period as the original and concerns itself with the same themes. Its hero, played with surprising conviction by the young Ben Barnes, is a man who comes to believe that only two things in life are worth having: youth and beauty. For these he makes a bargain with the Devil, and stays flawless despite his misdeeds, but the portrait he keeps in his attic gradually acquires the stains of sin.

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It's difficult to make morality plays appeal to a modern audience, but Wilde's work exists on the borderland between an age cemented in traditional values and the postmodern world we know today, and it transitions fairly well. The most important consideration is that audiences should know what they're getting into. Some of the people in my screening complained that it was "too predictable", rather missing the point.

From the start, viewers should understand that Dorian's choice has doomed him, and the little flashes of possible redemption which occur are all the more poignant because of this. The power of the story lies in its subtle complexities. With whom does the responsibility for Dorian's corruption really lie? What is the difference between pleasure and happiness? What does the process of aging really mean? Alongside this lie hints at Wilde's own discomfort with the treatment of women, the poor and the mentally ill - the power of a corrupt establishment that would ultimately doom him too.

To pull this off requires a strong script and intelligent direction, and, surprisingly, this film mostly succeeds, despite occasional moments of ham-fistedness (at the end, for instance, we see far more than we need to and consequently descend into cheesy straight-to-VHS horror territory). The new character - a feisty Rebecca Hall - works fairly well and goes some way toward redressing the misogynistic attitudes of the central characters, as well as making it easier for an audience less likely to be concerned with souls and hellfire to care about what's happening at the end.

Colin Firth is solid as Lord Wooton and Ben Chaplin charmingly understated as poor Basil. Though she doesn't get enough to do, Rachel Hurd-Wood works well as Sybil; she's nicely paralleled with Waterhouse's as well as Shakespeare's Ophelia and it's refreshing to see a non-Hollywood-standard body celebrated in these pivotal scenes, an appropriate way to underscore Dorian's initial simplicity.

Fans of Prince Caspian will be a long way from home watching Barnes in the title role, but the nature of the actor's fan following adds an extra irony to the tale - who really celebrates youth and beauty more than the film industry? He's not the most charismatic person to have taken on this challenging part, but he does a good job of balancing necessary remoteness and bursts of passion without seeming cartoonish. One hopes he will continue to improve with age.

For fans of Wilde, this isn't brilliant, but it's far better than most could reasonably have expected. For the average cinema-goer it's better than a lot of what reaches the box office and it rewards attentive viewing. Plus, of course, there's a great deal of debauchery on show. It's good to see that the homoerotic aspects of the story haven't been completely underplayed as one might have feared, but there is, shall we say, plenty to titillate viewers of every taste. It is in the nature of stories about corruption that they tempt those already drawn to the same path, and that raises another question central to the story - at what point does pleasure become sinful, and when is it really too late for Dorian to turn back? A Faustian puzzle, for sure.

Reviewed on: 09 Sep 2009
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A man has eternal youth... but what about the portrait in his attic?
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Director: Oliver Parker

Writer: Toby Finlay, Oscar Wilde

Starring: Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Rebecca Hall, Emilia Fox, Ben Chaplin, Caroline Goodall, Fiona Shaw, Maryam d'Abo, Johnny Harris, Douglas Henshall, Michael Culkin, Jo Woodcock, David Sterne, Pip Torrens

Year: 2009

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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