Contributed by Ann Downey
Dorian Gray is director Oliver Parker’s third foray into adaptation of a work by Oscar Wilde. In 1999 he directed An Ideal Husband and three years later followed with The Importance of Being Ernest, for both of which he wrote the screenplay. The former, starring Cate Blanchette and Rupert Everett, was a more successful film than The Importance, which lacked the crispness and pace of the more successful adaptation of 1947 starring Michael Redgrave and an unforgettably acerbic Lady Bracknell in Edith Evans.
Wilde’s novel has been filmed at least twenty times, the most famous being that of 1945, winning the Oscar for cinematography. The most recent, in 2006 was set in New York. The horror aspect was foremost in the 2005 version called simply Dorian. This current is the fifth film based on the novel since 2000. Before that television adaptations were more common, with versions in 1973, 1976 and 1983. The only feature film made since the 1945 version was that of Massimo Dallamano in 1970 starring German actor Helmut Berger. It was filmed more than five times in the decade before 1920 in German and French versions. This would not be unusual as at this time filmmaking was in its infancy and literature of every sort was mined for stories. These films could be as short as ten minutes, though by 1915 the full length feature had matured. Less than 15% of these early films survive.
Dorian Gray suffers from some of the faults of Parker’s Ernest; an uneven pacing and misjudgements in exposition but is redeemed by an excellent central performance from Ben Barnes.
The film would have been served better by a longer sequence establishing Dorian’s affection for Sybil Vane and less time on his abusive relationship with his grandfather (which seemed somewhat pointless and was not in the original novel). Sybil (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is all Pre-Raphaelite tresses and innocent sensuality but is not given much to do.
More importantly, the seriousness, for her, of her decision to sleep with Dorian, is lost to a contemporary audience. Her talent, which, in the book, is most important in Dorian’s attraction to her, is underplayed, thus losing the added moral dimension to his rejection of her. The filmmaker himself falls into the trap of reducing Sybil Vane to a mere image, her beauty, like Dorian’s, her only value.
The film is saved by the performances of Ben Barnes as Dorian and Colin Firth as Lord Henry Wotton. Colin Firth has the best lines, Wildean epigrams which he delivers with relish. Unlike the bland and inexpressive Hurd Hatfield of the well-known 1947 version, Ben Barnes brings charisma, charm and boyish beauty to the role of Dorian Gray. The moment of temptation, when he accepts the dare to sell his soul for a life without consequences is done with finesse. In a fleeting moment we see vanity and hubris, when he is seduced not only by Lord Henry’s flattery and philosophy but also by Basil Hallward’s (played effectively by Ben Chaplin) vision of him in the portrait. Dorian quickly succumbs to a range of debauchery, which to early twenty-first century eyes appears tame, even boring.
Apart from Dorian’s seduction of Basil there is no hint of the homoerotic subtext which gave the novel such power to shock. In interviews the director has made observations about contemporary obsessions with youth and beauty but there is little in the film which contributes to the debate. However, he does include former Bond girl Maryam d’Abo (The Living Daylights, 1987), in a small part, and, in the scene of Dorian’s return after a long absence, gives her aged but still beautiful face to the camera, contrasting it with Dorian’s still unspoilt beauty. This was hardly accidental.