Director: Oliver Parker
Cast: Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Ben Chaplin, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Rebecca Hall, Johnny Harris, Fiona Shaw
Plot: A young, handsome man (Barnes) in Victorian London has a painting made of him to capture his youth, unwittingly trapping his soul in the canvas.
Dorian Gray is one of those book adaptations that comes along and you are unsure what good points you can make about the movie and which words of praise really belong to the source novel. There is only so bad Dorian Gray can be, because the original Oscar Wilde’s story was so fascinating, so gripping, so wonderfully Gothic, that Oliver Parker finds himself with the dream story to already handle. All he really has to do is capture the magic, not create it.
Like all good Gothic texts, The Picture of Dorian Gray takes the deepest desires of Man and portrays how these wishes can be misconstrued. Dorian Gray shows up at his dead grandfather’s estate, naïve, young and handsome. He attracts the attention of Colin Firth’s pleasure-seeking Henry and Ben Chaplin’s closet homosexual artist, Basil, as well as every female in the near radius. As Dorian finds his feet in this new home, Henry pushes forward his life’s philosophy, life is short, so we need to grab every pleasure. While Dorian tries to do the right thing, his troublesome new friend drags him through every whorehouse, drug den and bar he can find, eager to spend the last few months of his life before the birth of his daughter, grabbing life with everything he has got. Ben Chaplin’s Basil celebrates his friendship with Dorian another way, painting him a magnificent portrait that captures his youth and elegance. As Henry gets jealous over the fact a painting can stay forever young, Dorian wishes exactly that, to live like a painting and stay captured in this moment of time for the rest of his life. Slowly he realises that is exactly what has happened. The painting is more than a painting, but his soul, taken from his body and put in a separate object. Dorian finds himself blessed with the power to withstand any damage his soul takes, so his body survives without the burden of his sins. Every bruise, scar or bodily harm caused from overuse of drugs is transferred to the painting and not himself. At first, Dorian dives into a world, where he can freely indulge in pleasure without fear of consequence. Every sexual experience, every drug, every poison he can put in his body causes him no harm. Oscar Wilde’s story questions if there is such thing as going through these ordeals without causing your soul damage. While Dorian’s body remains youthful until the bitter end, it is hard to argue that he goes through this movie unchanged. His hunger for more and more indulgences of pleasure destroys his friendships, turning him into a man without a heart. All he cares about is the next thrill and not maintaining his bond with Basil. His love life is constantly seen as a distraction from pursuing the thrills of bachelorhood. Dorian Gray claims to be able to shoulder the weight of his actions, but Wilde argues that sin adds up. We can not live with such marks on our person. The ending is something ripped right out of textbook Gothic stories, with Dorian locking his hideous portrait in his attic, ashamed that someone might lay eyes on the visual representation of his soul, a grotesque, monstrous thing.
Therefore, the movie hooks you simply on its portrayal of desire. But there is a strong sense that the reason this film thrills is all down to Oscar Wilde, not Oliver Parker. In fact, there are many moments where the director seems to undercut the power of the story. The editing is far too frantic, breezing over key parts of the story that develop characters. Parker is eager to get to the meat of his narrative, where Dorian truly wades into the murk of sin, but in rushing the start, we lose the reason we should maintain faith in the characters. Rachel Hurd-Wood plays the poor Cyril, an actress who Dorian falls in love with, before his quest for pleasure drags him away from her. The character never registers, another chapter in Dorian’s life, rather than the pinnacle of his descent into villainy. Rebecca Hall, the late love interest, barely registers, simply running out of time for the audience to be able to bond with another character. But even then, the scenes where Dorian Gray sins feel a tad constrained, coming across as a little too tame, for those hoping for a montage of Victorian orgies. The movie aims for the middle between tasteful and raucous, so we get all of the naked flesh, without the grittiness of Dorian’s actions. There are no scenes that will stick in your mind in a way that 50 Shades of Grey will (there’s a Dorian Gray pun there somewhere). I also have a few problems with the casting of Ben Barnes. He looks the part, certainly, long black locks and youthful eyes that look innocent, even when he is at his most monstrous. There is a babyish beauty to the character that works well with the grim nature of the story. But Barnes cannot quite get the depth needed to sell the tortured character. Like the director, perhaps because of the director, he simply tells the story, going from tormented revelation to angry scene, treating each character beat like a checklist, rather than a powerful emotional moment. You cannot hep but wish that Leonardo Di Caprio took on the character. The story should start and end with Dorian Gray, the performance of a lifetime available from this man, determined to take on the worst of pleasure and come out of the other side intact. Sadly, the performance just isn’t there and the movie is only average because of it. Praise must be given to Colin Firth, however, as the silver-tongued Henry. The film puts the character in a far more central role in the conclusion that he got in the book, probably because of Firth being in the part, but otherwise, the actor is the perfect incarnation of Henry. A rare touch of intelligence in a movie lacking so much of it.
Final Verdict: Dorian Gray could have been so much more, a tame retelling of a story that deserves a meaty adaptation.