As many critics have expounded, Oscar Wilde's novel of moral warning “The Picture Of Dorian Gray”, published in 1891, is possibly the least cinematic of gothic chillers. Whereas the tried and trusted Frankensteins and Draculas of the era have enough vigour to survive a thousand and more interpretations, and even the Dr. Jeckylls and Mr. Hydes of the milieu can be dissected and remoulded in various forms from the faithful adaptation to the broader theme of the split-personified beast-in-man, the hedonistic culture of psychotic narcissism that dominates the world of accursed aristocrat, Dorian Gray, has always been stifled by its internalised stylings and imprisoned by the shackles of parlour room theatricality. Elegant and witty, and profoundly articulate, it is not the horror story that many people expect it to be, although the tale has always been smuggled in with the more obvious terror-titans of literature, from Le Fanu, Shelley, Stoker and Stephenson to Bearse, Poe, Lovecraft and James. Thus, it does not lend itself to the typical thrills and chills that a period suspense-piece would usually lay claim to. Not for returning social wastrel, Dorian (Ben Barnes), the fog-bound streets of a Ripper-torn old London Town, nor the creepy baronial seclusion of a forgotten castle or a moor-bound estate - his riches-to-rags odyssey is psychological and metaphorical rather than concerned with the visual tropes of the genre. But director Oliver Parker and screenwriter Toby Finlay attempt to bring some vitality and horror to the tale, injecting murder most foul and the kind of sexual antics that Wilde and the 1945 version, with Hurd Hatfield in the title role, had to skirt nobly around. For them, there is acute mystery in the imposing old dark house, bitter secrets in the attic and the fable is given a deeper supernatural slant to go along with its more depraved and severe spiritual breakdown.
The well-known story, of moral decline, sexual liberation and emotional corruption and the damage that such mores do to the human soul is, at heart, staunchly conservative and horribly reproachful. Young Dorian, returning as sole inheritor to the ancestral pad of his family in the wealthy heart of the capital, is already lost amid the towering walls of class dogma and the labyrinth of high society etiquette. Which, of course, makes him easy prey for the depraved and salacious ways of the rebellious, somewhat Byronic, Lord Henry Wotton (played with a queer sort of reserved relish by Colin Firth), who seems hell-bent on nudging his young protégé off the straight and narrow.
Falling under Henry's sleazy spell - whores, drugs, drink and, er, cigarettes from Cairo - and becoming a regular at the upper class den of inequity, The Hellfire Club, Dorian's insanely good looks and impeccable charms make him the prized commodity for all who spy him. Whether languishing in lady-bedecked brothel boudoirs, or entertaining the upper crust at posh do's, and setting hearts both bursting with youthful desire and starched and matronly aflutter, Dorian is the toast of the town. With his close cohorts of Henry and the much more sensible artist, Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), his seduction to the dark side is made all the more complete when he commissions that infamous portrait of himself ... at his best. Even the more guarded Basil is stunned by his own achievement, the lifelike canvas capturing more than just the image of the faultless Dorian, who fatefully commits his soul to its hypnotic gaze if it allows him to pursue an eternity of reckless debauchery without ageing or suffering. And, dutifully, the portrait assumes all of his physical ills and ailments, whilst Dorian flits through life and love without a care, experiencing what amounts to a career as a veritable Cenobite. But, as with every Faustian bargain, there is a price to be paid ... and blood, pain and anguish are sure to come calling for the Adonis if he cannot keep his secret locked away.
Oliver Parker is no stranger to the language and the social mirroring of Wilde, having already helmed The Importance Of Being Earnest back in 2002 and An Ideal Husband in 1999 (which he also appeared in), but this is a first-time script for Finlay. However, with inside-out knowledge of the original prose and a keen sense of honing-down the excessive verbiage to its thematic core, he produces a fine, if slightly dreamy incarnation that keeps to the essentials but folds-in an entirely new character who provides an intelligent dramatic swerve that just happens to help reinforce the tension in latter stages. Together, with this modified version of the classic novel, they also strive to incorporate an old dark house motif that turns out to be quite effective. Creaks and whisperings can be heard from upstairs. Old and wretched memories of a persecuted youth haunt Dorian, the dusty attic acting as both his metaphorical ghosts for past and future, and the locked depository for the withering painting ensnaring his very existence. There is a palpable sense of dread and foreboding about the narrative, the extremes of pleasure and pain heightened. Once things have turned bad in the second half of the tale, there is an inescapable feeling of fate doing what it does best, and catching up with those who try to tiptoe out of its grasp, that is quite compelling. We can appreciate that Dorian is lost, yet also, at least in part, is hoping to find his way back to the moral stronghold of his former ways. But the clever thing is that temptation always gets the better of him. In reality, nobody ever changes that much from a path that they have chosen to live on, for better or for worse. Dorian has sealed his own doom and the gratifying thing, thematically for us, is in our combined sympathy for him and our determination to see him finally undone by the sins that he has committed.
Ben Barnes might not be quite the revelation we would want from a man who must travel from utter naivete to wanton debauchery, but he is very good as Gray and manages to do that terribly difficult of things in that he makes us empathise with him even though we are aware that he knows his spooky secret from very early on and is, therefore, genuinely devious and cruel. Crucially falling in love with Rachel Hurd-Wood's actress Sybil Vane in the first act gives us a taste of the man that Dorian could have been had Henry Wotton not gotten (oh dear, oh dear!) his cancerous mitts on him first. Barnes and Hurd-Wood (seen playing an abducted puritan in Solomon Kane) share some awkwardly tender scenes, their chemistry not quite gelling - although this could be intentional as their moment of intimacy, especially, is daft and uncomfortable when compared to Dorian's more colourful escapades. Hurd-Wood, however, looks positively radiant. Barnes, it should be said - if only to make some of the, ahem, less photogenic dudes out there feel a little better about themselves - has sparrow-tits and the type of build that would take Christian Bale three months of starvation to reach. In fact, once his shirt is off, he looks ... well, a little odd. But, seriously, despite his rather bland and wooden performance as Prince Caspian in the second Narnia film, Barnes is shaping up to be a bit of a dark horse of a performer. There are those who have not welcomed his decadent turn here, but I think he does a fine job. There is an entirely appropriate darkness to him that is subtly played and when called upon to react with unchecked emotion - the news of an early tragedy, for example - he more than delivers. The famous scene of his return to London society after many years of libertine adventures around the world and looking exactly the same as he did when he left, whilst everyone else has aged, is wonderfully done, Barnes simply oozing with his own infernal sex appeal and clearly savouring the pin-drop excitement of his entrance before his shocked friends and acquaintances. For some, this is a pure contrivance, excessive and wallowing but it is an essential development. Of course questions would be asked and, in reality, Dorian would probably end up courting the same twisted adulation as the Elephant Man, but it is the strength of his now-terrifying charisma that allows such a lack of transformation semi-acceptable.
Colin Firth, of course no stranger to period drama, is actually superb as the leering Devil on Dorian's shoulder, ushering him into a world of vice. Firth has said that he believes Henry has a obsessive desire to corrupt and destroy beauty, and this is certainly true to an extent. Whilst he enjoys goading poor Basil by tempting Dorian into evermore amoral deeds and there is definitely an element of him simply winding the younger man up into an almost irrevocable fall from grace, I can't help but feel that he is living his own warped dreams of physical freedom by proxy. With Dorian much better looking than himself, and also much more able to cavort with virtual impunity whilst Henry is actually married and must, to some degree, at least, conform, there is a pride at work as he watches his creation go about his love rampage. He may not be responsible for the supernatural glamour that umbilically links Dorian to his picture, but he is the one who lifted the lid on the man's once suppressed desires and awakened him to a life of wild sexual adventure. Firth does well as the devious onlooker - urbane and witty and shot-through with a wicked cynicism. He is forced to manipulate a swing-shift in attitude later on that is made all the more believable with a grave countenance and a steely glare, as well as the inclusion of that new character that Finlay created.
Rebecca Hall, daughter of Sir Peter Hall, eminent luminary of the stage, as fresh and natural as the suffragette daughter of Henry who comes to represent a possibility of redemption for Dorian. Free-spirited and politically liberated , the raven-haired Emily Wotton breezes-in and alters the tone of the film, perhaps making us aware of the rather abrupt last third development a little more keenly than we would have been otherwise. Suddenly the film takes on a more traditional approach to its momentum - the stakes have been raised and there is a rapid ticking-clock deadline that Wilde would possibly have railed against. But such a verbose story as this needs some adrenaline if it is going to succeed as a movie entertainment. Her attraction to Dorian is also quite fitting. She is a New Age thinker, progressive and wilful, secure in her own outlook. He is a decadent vulture, yes, but he is also a non-conformist, as she is, and she can't help but find this appealing in such a rapacious rogue.
Decked-out with some terrific supporting actors - such as period and stage regulars as Fiona Shaw, Pip Torrens, Caroline Goodall, Maryam D'Abo, Douglas Henshall and Emilia Fox - who bring colour and decorum to the drama, whilst Johnny Harris adds a vengeful dynamic to the proceedings as the father of Dorian's ill-fated bride-to-be, Parker's film oozes high-gloss sheen and expertly transports you to a bygone time. Aiding this relocation for us are the visuals. The film always looks tremendous. Typical views of a CG dated London are, of course, now de rigour for these period productions, each entry vying for the most seamless and authentic depictions, but the streets and buildings that Dorian prowls around have a lusty ambience, even if they can't always avoid feeling slightly hemmed-in and somewhat samey, despite being some pretty large sets and well-integrated locations, such as Highgate Cemetery. Upping the sex is definitely a necessary ingredient for this story. Without it, we would have no real avenue into Gray's jaded decline and the seedbed that continually challenges him with new pleasures. Wilde only hinted, but Parker does quite a lot with surprisingly less tackiness than you might have expected. Apart from the drug-smeared and woozily-lensed orgies and the throwaway instances of bisexuality, there is the great scene in which Dorian, having already bedded a young damsel at her “coming of age” party, then proceeds to seduce her mother, whilst the girl is secreted under the bed. Call me old-fashioned, but get in there, my son! There is the added level of violence too, actually enabling Dorian Gray, as a film, to embody the lifestyle of its title character by living up to its reputation with both sex and gore. A frenzied knifing and the rather interesting aftermath of a man/train interface become two grisly high-points in a story that really isn't known for such sensation.
And, naturally, there is the depiction of the damned portrait, itself. Innocuous scuffs and spots at first, the visual effects eventually run the gamut of creepy-crawlies, zombie-like scowls and then full-on three-dimensional life, the picture becoming a genuine thing of fear. And, wisely, even though off the screen for the majority of the time, we still feel its lurking presence with the vague gleam in Barnes' eyes and the slight curl of a knowing smile.
All set to a lush and actually quite beautiful score from Charlie Mole, Dorian Gray is fine entertainment. Literate and atmospheric, it translates well from its source and, with only a couple of probably very necessary deviations, finds the corrupted heart of Wilde's story and makes it compelling and alluring for a modern audience. As a horror film it is lightweight - as it should be. But as a mood-piece that explores the inner decay of a man's soul and the ripple effect of tragedy this development creates for all those around him, Parker's film is a handsome delight. Barnes, Firth and Chaplin shine amid a cinematic décor of exquisite ladies and intoxicating encounters. There is nothing shocking about the visual rendering of Dorian's amoral activities, but there is titillation aplenty and the film valiantly avoids becoming staid, trite or over-wordy - all things that could so easily have befallen such a literary adaptation. One of the less-channelled of characters - beyond Barnes and Hatfield, we only have Stuart Townsend in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Dorian Gray is a delightfully fitting figure of uber-vanity for today's Botox-brigade and, of course, a painful reminder that nothing lasts forever.
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