The ugly truth…
Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray has long proved a source of inspiration for film-makers across the globe, from the 1945 classic named after the novel to the 2003 actioner The Leaue of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which the character appeared as a minor player. The original novel’s aesthetic may be pure 19th century gothic, but its themes of desire and mortality remain of universal fascination; so it is that we are presented with the latest in a long line of Gray adaptations.
This retelling is directed by Oliver Parker, who has a history with bringing classic works of literature to the big screen having previously helmed Othello (1995), An Ideal Husband (2002) and The Importance of Being Earnest (2002). He was also behind last year’s raucous St Trinian’s rehash, which may give you an early clue as to what to expect here.
Ben Barnes adds another floppy haired hearthrob string to his acting bow – following similar turns in Stardust, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Easy Virtue – as Dorian, the young lad who comes, fresh-faced and innocent, into the heaving bosom of 19th century London. Meeting Lord Harry Wotton (Colin Firth), Dorian is introduced to the idea of debauchery as entertainment. When painter Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin) captures the young man’s beauty in a highly lauded painting, Dorian sees just how good he looks on canvas and, clearly having never heard of Botox, he declares that he would sell his soul to look that good forever. Hey presto the deal is done, and Dorian realises that he can live a live of hedonism, whores and homicide without consequence – well, besides the painting going a bit mouldy. Several decades later, however, and he’s discovering just how high a price he’s having to pay for immortality…
That the entire premise hangs on the character of Dorian is undoubtedly this film’s fatal flaw; Barnes may have a boyband charm but it’s unlikely anyone over the age of 14 will understand why every single person he encounters, whether male or female, is enamoured by his beauty to the point of hysteria. And he doesn’t provide the emotional range needed to embue the story with the psychological depths it requires – despite the film’s many, and samey, sequences of Dorian behaving badly, the narrative lives or dies not in its action, but in its introspection. The true nature of unchecked desire is never truly explored and, by the time Dorian realises what he has become, and Barnes actually showcases some dramatic muscle, it’s too little, too late.
Parker, too, has concentrated on the oppulent look and visual gimmicks at the expense of exploring his characters. They are all drawn in too-broad strokes for such an intense story; Firth’s Lord Wotton is almost a charicature, spouting one-liners and cliche, and although Chaplin’s Basil is the most interesting character – and indeed the catalyst for the strange events – he is woefully underused. Even the painting itself, teasingly hidden until the film’s climax, is disappointing, looking more like a watercolour that’s been out in the rain than the putrid symbol of a rotten soul. The whole thing plays like MTV meets Penguin Literary Classics, all fast editing and high gloss cinematography that just can’t compensate for the lack of any emotional resonance. And, despite its seductive premise, it’s just plain dull.
Stars Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Ben Chaplin
Director Oliver Parker
Screenplay Toby Finlay, from the novel by Oscar Wild
Running Time 1hr 52mins
Opens September 9