Dorian Gray

Starring Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Ben Chaplin and Rebecca Hall. Directed by Oliver Parker
Rated MA 15+ (strong violence and sex scenes). 112 mins.

At the end of the 19th century, two significant novels were published by famous authors: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson and, five years later (1891), The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

They both dealt with the contradictions in a man, good and evil, with self-indulgence and the attempt to avoid responsibility.  For Stevenson, chemicals released the inner Dr Hyde for a life of violence and depravity, ultimately destroying Dr Jekyll, a good man who had made wrong decisions.  For Wilde, the exterior of Dorian Gray does not change over the decades.  He seems a respectable citizen.  However, the corruption of his life gradually takes over and consumes his portrait, hidden away from anyone's gaze in his attic.

There have been many versions of Wilde's story, several in the silent era.  The classic Hollywood film was made in 1945 with Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton.  It was filmed in black and white except for the climactic impact of the picture in colour.

Other versions for television have sometimes updated the story to the present.

Director Oliver Parker has had success with Wilde's An Ideal Husband and very mixed reactions for Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (present company not liking it at all).  He also directed an update of St Trinian's and a sequel.

His Dorian Gray goes back to the 1890s, Wilde's era, and presents a rather stylised, artificial view of London affluent society.  The young Dorian (Ben Barnes moving away from his performance as Prince Caspian!) fits into this world with some ease despite cruelty experienced in his past.  He falls in love with Sybil Vane, an actress.  However, it is Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth at his best) who is a charmingly malevolent mentor (using Wildean epigrams and manners) who offers Dorian a choice between good and evil.  Dorian chooses evil – and discovers that his portrait painted by his devoted friend, Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), is absorbing the physical and moral consequences of his behaviour.

Dorian's life of depravity is rather posed and postured here, like some illustrations from Aubrey Beardsley and fin de siecle artists with whom Wilde was familiar.  However, the film sets Dorian's long years of travel in the early 20th century, returning him at the beginning of World War I.  We see much of 20th century technology, cameras, phones, gramophones, cars, the London Underground – and the coming of the suffragettes.

Commentators on the film note that Wilde saw Dorian as unrepentant.  Here his conscience gets the better of him, especially when confronted by Sybil Vane's demented brother bent on revenge as well as encountering the very forthright daughter of Lord Henry, Emily (a vigorous Rebecca Hall).

The plot moves rather rapidly at the beginning, especially Dorian's settling into London and the painting of his portrait.  Then it slows down to show Dorian's moral decline.  Ben Barnes may appeal to many audiences though he is presented as a mixture of the strong character and the effete who would be at home with some of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Not a definitive version of the novel but an interesting interpretation for our times.

Roadshow Out November 12

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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