|Caspian done goofed.|
You would think that turning an Oliver Wilde novel into a sensationalized, nearly exploitative camp piece of pulp fiction might prove impossible. But, Oliver Parker would prove you wrong. Shamefully so, seeing as how his adaptations of other Wilde works, like An Ideal Husband or The Importance of Being Earnest, have been lauded and for good reason. Even more amazing, Dorian Gray failed to find a distributor in the United States, and was doomed to a "direct to DVD" release, after a theatrical release in the United Kingdom. As it stands, though, Dorian Gray is all about the atmosphere in this version, not so much about the preservation of Wilde's wit nor the story itself. It's unfortunate, but that's what we're left with at the end of the film. Lots of pomp, very little circumstance.
Honestly, it might be more accurate considering this an "origins" tale to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Of course this is an adaptation of the Oliver Wilde novel, but so little is done to honor the work that it seems cruel to connect the two. The ideas behind the two frames remain the same - but the results are entirely different. Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes), a youthful man of 20 or so, inherits a fortune after his father passes away. With that fortune comes the posh lifestyle of the early 20th century, and a slew of new friends. The most important of which would prove to be a man named Henry Wooton (an excellent Colin Firth), who teaches young Dorian to not be afraid of pleasure in all its forms, and another named Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), who paints a wonderful portrait of him, and wishes to put it on display. Of course, he can't. Why? Because the Dorian in the picture ages, rather than Dorian himself. And the life Dorian is leading - a life bitter with corruption and decadence - isn't to kind to him.
Parker does his best to imbue all sorts of Gothic horror tricks into his film, and most of what I imagine he learned in film school. Tilted camera angles, jump scenes, and an eerie gray (!) palate dominate the film's production design. Unfortunately, the design of the film turns unfortunate as the series of events unfold. It acts as a modernization, sort of, to a classic tale that should be timeless. The music has the odd inclusion of an electric guitar, if that's any indication. And the film suffers from what I call "Yesterday Syndrome" - an affliction to most period pieces these days, in which a film taking place in days long ago can't help but seem like it was filmed yesterday, and everyone involved is merely playing dress up. Of course, that's the actual case, but a good period piece completely immerses you in the time indicated, and doesn't leave any room for question. Think of 2005's Pride and Prejudice for an example of a good period piece. Nothing seemed forward, and certainly everything looked like it was from that time. Dorian Gray, however, quite literally seems like a costume party or a murder mystery dinner.
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing hanging over the whole project is the fact that Ben Barnes can't carry the weight of the film. His Dorian is one note, and that note is whiny and scratchy. Gray is supposed to be a charming individual, alarmingly so. But, Barnes drains him of any empathy or likability, making the point of the film completely null and void. A man sells his soul to retain his youth and beauty (of which Barnes has plenty to spare), only to have it ripped away in a moment of transcendence. There's a lot to connect to in the novel; feelings of longing and a desperate need to be connected with one's youth. But at what price? Certainly, in this film, the price was the feel of the film itself. I can't tell you what the story requires, I can only tell you that what Oliver Parker tried to achieve has been done to greater effect in the past. There are a handful of adaptations, each of which is much easier to swallow than this particular try. And, trust me, it is a very particular try.
Thankfully, there is one thing that keeps the performance from being an utter failure. That would be the performance of Colin Firth. Henry Wooton is a slimy man, living life vicariously through his banal philosophies and through the eternally young Dorian himself. He introduces him to women, alcohol, drugs, and "fun", so much as Henry sees it. He claims that "conscience is only a polite term for cowardice", and because Dorian is apparently so susceptible to peer pressure, he eats up every word and takes it on as a mantra. Of course, the caveat to Henry is that he's a married man with a child on the way. He doesn't want to give into his natural design, but he has to, because even a man like Henry understands right from wrong and responsibility, two qualities which Dorian has grown to lack. Not the Dorian in the novel, mind you, but the Dorian in this film. Even more so than Barnes' performance, that might be the film's greatest failing - an understanding of who Dorian Gray actually is. Read the novel (it's a quick, easy read) and find out. The two are definitely not one in the same. Ben Chaplin and Rebecca Hall play Basil and Henry's daughter, respectively, and each do their best to find footing in an uneven playground. Solid performances, but not enough to rise about the rubble around them.
Hopefully, this film will age as well as Dorian's portrait. And if this ever becomes the definitive filmic version of the novel, well, all hope might as well be lost. It needs a better treatment. I was raised to be quite particular about adaptations, and of Oliver Wilde's work (I'm not the most well versed man, but I know my way around it). I can recommend the other, earlier, less drab versions of the novel, but I can only wholeheartedly recommend the novel itself. It's the true work and has what this film doesn't - an understanding of the lead character, an appropriately placed atmosphere, and an appreciation of the time in which it takes place. That, and Wilde's words are best when coming from the man himself. It also lacks Ben Barnes' performance, which is probably the best thing about the novel, in retrospect.