Bil’s rating (out of 5): B. United Kingdom, 2009. Ealing Studios, Alliance Films, Fragile Films, UK Film Council, Aramid Entertainment Fund, Hindsight Media, Moving Picture Company. Screenplay by Toby Finlay, based on the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Cinematography by Roger Pratt. Produced by Barnaby Thompson. Music by Charlie Mole. Production Design by John Beard. Costume Design by Ruth Myers. Film Editing by Guy Bensley. Toronto International Film Festival 2009.
Having already ruined Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare, it is incredible to think that Oliver Parker would be permitted to get his hands on the great author’s material only to make mincemeat of its contents yet again. This terrible adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, whose contents were incendiary enough to be used against Wilde in his legal trials, is not the worst version ever made (the one with Helmut Berger is far more unwatchable), but it hardly stands up among the good ones either. Ben Barnes plays the untouchably beautiful title character whose portrait is painted by the enamoured Ben Chaplin, resulting in a work so inspiring that it makes the young man wish he himself could stay young and perfect while his picture takes on his ageing and sin. Colin Firth is the equally obsessed aristocrat who becomes Barnes’ mentor, taking him from a state of ignorance and introducing him to the nasty backbiting ways that make one survive the many dangers of being in society. Time passes, people die, and Barnes stays young and beautiful while upstairs in the attic his picture is marked by the rot and decay that comes from his excessive and consequence-free indulgence. Ridiculously, in this version the portrait veritably pulses with the destruction wrought upon it, bumping and burping under its tarp cover thanks to some very bad special effects that only make Parker’s additions to the story, and overwrought ending, that much more difficult to bear. Amendments to Wilde’s original narrative are only natural: the story has a fascinating concept but the majority of its drama is in its characters’ dialogue than in its plotting, so dramatic adaptations have understandably seen fit to add motivations (the definitive Albert Lewin version from 1945 includes an enchanted talisman that puts the whole thing in motion), but even with that necessity in place, Parker still fails miserably. The man who gave Lady Bracknell an odious past as a Can-Can girl makes the same blunders again, his use of Wilde’s witty dialogue seeming desperate to please and his visual stylistics overbearing and vulgar. The only plus points are the performances, with Firth embodying the rakish society man with gusto and Barnes perfectly appropriate as the beautiful blank page upon which the world longs to write its story.