| Dir. Oliver Parker , UK, 2009, 112 mins
Cast: Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Ben Chaplin
Review by Carol Allen
Having made two films from Oscar Wilde's plays ("An Ideal Husband" and "The Importance of Being Earnest"), director Parker now turns his attention to the playwright's only novel. "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is a gothic and also Faustian tale of hedonism, sin and the price which is ultimately paid by the eponymous Dorian, which has been filmed many times with various degrees of fidelity and success.
Parker's version of the story - the physically perfect young man, who never ages despite the life he leads, while the portrait which captured his beauty grows old and hideous reflecting his sins - is told not as a horror movie but an elegant period piece with a contemporary spin. The settings, most notably the Queen Anne mansion in Highgate, used as the London house that Dorian inherits from his brutal grandfather, are perfectly chosen, while the post Dickensian East End, where Dorian (Barnes) and his mentor Lord Henry Wotton (Firth) go slumming, is convincing in an interestingly theatrical way. There's also for one scene a perfect recreation of an early London underground station. Barnes not only looks beautiful as the young man who barters his soul in return for eternal youth but he holds the centre of film strongly, as the initially naïve Dorian, swept up into London society under the guidance of Wotton, who encourages him to taste the illicit pleasures of the flesh, many of which the older man dare not try himself. Firth in many ways has the more interesting role as a sort of Mephastophilis to Dorian's Faust, standing on the sidelines cynically commenting and getting all the good Wilde lines - "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it" - while Chaplin as Basil, the sexually conflicted painter of the portrait, gives good support and looks nearly as beautiful as young Dorian. Although still very much a Victorian morality tale, screenwriter Toby Finlay has updated the story for a contemporary audience, introducing an overtly gay element, which Wilde could not of course do at the time, and attempting a psychological explanation of Dorian's change from innocence to evil through flashbacks to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his grandfather in that same attic, where he later hides the portrait. There's also a touch of contemporary morality in that his first step on the path to decadence is marked, when he first takes a cigarette offered to him by Wotton.
Inevitably the film suffers from the same problem as Marlowe's "Dr Faustus", in that some of Dorian's actual acts of decadence begin after a while to look a bit silly. There is though an episode in which he beds both a mother and daughter for a bet, which is wickedly funny, and his explicit seduction of Basil manages to pack a bit of a punch. There's not a lot for the women to do in this film, though Rachel Hurd Wood as the young actress he loves and leaves is touching and Rebecca Hall gives the film a real lift towards the end as Wotton's now grown daughter Emily, a modern young woman, who's into women's suffrage and photography. This last section of the film is particularly strong, in that it extends Wilde's tale up to the pre First World War period, giving us a very powerful scene, where Dorian returns to London after many years abroad. Everyone he knows including Wotton is now old but Dorian himself is unchanged. The portrait itself is effectively done and not over used, allowing our curiosity to be piqued, and the climax, which is entirely Parker and Finlay's creation, is dramatically effective and winds the tension up nicely, as both we and Wotton fear for Emily's life. It also ultimately brings to film back to Wilde's own resolution of the tale.