Movie review: Dorian Gray directed by Oliver Parker

Release year: 2009
Script Toby Finlay based on the novel of Oscar Wilde
Dorian Gray: Ben Barnes
Basil Hallward: Ben Chaplin
Lord Henry Wooton: Colin Firth
Sybil Vane: Rachel Hurd-Wood
Emily Wooton: Rebecca Hall

Synopsis (for those who haven’t read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde):
Young, innocent and very handsome Dorian Gray arrives in London on a day in the late 19th century to take over his late grandfather’s estate. Dorian  quickly meets and befriends Basil Hallward,  an artist who, smitten by his beauty, desires to paint his picture, and his fashionably cynical friend, Lord Henry Wooton, who starts teaching Dorian life-lessons in pleasure and self-gratification.
It seems with every move of the paintbrush on canvas Dorian’s newly-found vanity is growing. Finally it leads him to proclaim that he would trade his soul for the opportunity to remain young, virile and physically perfect all his life, to the very end – a deal the Devil is only too happy to make. Soon afterwards the portrait of Dorian becomes a kind of repository for all of  moral and physical ills that are afflicting its model. It must be removed and hidden in the cellar because it literally reeks of putrefaction, attracting flies and oozing strange pus. Yum-yum.
Still there is some hope – Dorian falls truly in love with a young, promising actress, Sibyl Vane, and proposes marriage to her. Lord Wooton, feeling his favourite prey is slipping out of his fingers, cleverly warns Dorian against tying the knot too early. He introduces him to some ‘clubs’ for lewd, rich ‘gentlemen’. Dorian cheats on Sybil, lies to her and misses her last performance, leaving her completely broken-hearted. The girl commits a suicide. After her death there is no reining in Dorian’s excesses – he smokes opium, enjoys the company of prostitutes of both sexes, engages in BDSM orgies, seduces young, rich virgins and their middle-aged mothers during the same night, all the time egged on by sly Wooton who wants to experience all those things but only vicariously. Still that lifestyle doesn’t bring Dorian any lasting happiness. One day Basil asks his former model to lend him the picture – he wants it to be the centre piece in a new exhibition of his work. Dorian first says ‘no’ and then, as Basil insists, he shows him the horribly changed portrait and murders him. After that crime life starts being unbearable to him.
Finally Dorian, completely bored with London, decides to go on a journey around the world. It lasts about two decades. When he returns all his friends, distinctly aged, with respectable grey hair, are shocked by his unchanged, youthful and fresh appearance. Lord Wooton’s daughter, Emily, now a young, modern, ‘emancipated’ woman, falls in love with Dorian but her father is horrified at the prospect of getting his former protégé and a brother-in-sin as a son-in-law. He decides to look for and reveal the secret of Dorian’s fresh, unblemished beauty…
My impressions:
As usually I was prepared to hate this adaptation. Instead I was pleasantly surprised – Toby Finlay’s screenplay features some clever plot inventions which made that movie actually fun, although not exactly close to the original. One thing is sure -Wilde’s gothic novel is served in a great atmosphere. The city of London is presented as a  hellhole full of smog, thieves, whores and shadowy establishments known as theaters, pubs and such. Dorian’s inherited house is vast, gloomy and rather ominous, not to mention that neglected cellar where his dear granddad used to beat little Dorian with a cane. Parker shows that not only does he have a deft hand when it comes to handling Wilde’s dialogue, but he is very adept at developing a creepy atmosphere.
The main character is fashioned into a rock star of a sort – he is a looker (Ben Barnes was physically an excellent choice, really; he is prettier than some young actresses working by his side, just look at the poster, presented above), dresses with style and plays piano rather well, even giving a concert for charity (but pray, where was he taught? In the country? By whom?) Still his transformation from a young ingénue to a debauched murderer, a rake and a liar I found problematic a bit, too swift and psychologically improbable. First he is deeply in love, then he rejects poor Sybil without one substantial row, just because his older friend told him about some drawbacks of marriage. Overall I found it infuriating and unreal that Dorian never seriously questioned lord Wooton’s acute interest in his humble person, all that interference and suspicious tutoring in evil. Nobody is so trusting and so candid. After a while he was no more than a puppet, repeating parrot-fashion the words and ideas of his mentor.

“Look, my boy, it’s going to rain…” no, these two
never talk about the weather. I wish they were.
Speaking of his lordship… Colin Firth still seems like a lovely man and he’s a good actor, but in my opinion his sunny, open face is simply not suited to the role of a cad. He’s much more convincing as the protective father in the second half of the film, when lord Wooton’s hypocrisy is fully revealed (yes, it’s perfectly ok to lead a young, impressionable man astray for your personal amusement but the moment that man gets interested in your own daughter you hit the roof – how dares he? How dares HE, the ugly, dirty, immoral swine which… I helped to create?). Actually it was one of the highlights of the film.
Let me also notice that this movie is full of sex scenes which are surprisingly unsexy; after a while you ask yourself what’s the appeal of a dissolute life…it is certainly not a beauty treatment.

“I was prettyyyy, oh so prettyyy,
I felt pretyyy and witty and bright…”

The ending I found quite dramatic but still the visual effects of the change the Dorian’s portrait underwent  were childish, straight from a cartoon, ill matching the somberness of the Faustian pact storyline.
Final verdict:
“Pleasure is different from happiness” – those words of wisdom which Dorian learned from experience sum up this movie rather well. I admit it was a pleasure to watch but it didn’t leave me completely happy – not really. Overall for an adaptation of a classic novel it wasn’t bad, maybe because I expected  it to be truly horrible and boring, but it also wasn’t brilliant. Somewhere in-between – which is a compliment.


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