Oscar Wilde’s eternal youth has enjoyed mixed fortunes over the years, having gone from the centre of attention in 1945’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray to a mere bit-part in 2003’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Oliver Parker’s new adaptation of Wilde’s 1890s novel lies somewhere in the middle and wins brownie points for remaining relatively faithful to the text.
Like other treatments, alas, it struggles to squeeze gothic thrills from a story that is more about ideas than action and a lead character that is basically just one big metaphor.
For those who dozed off in English lessons, the eponymous Dorian is a handsome young gent who stays miraculously unblemished while a portrait in his attic ages for him. Keeping the painting under wraps he embarks on a hedonistic binge that rots his soul, all the while remaining as dashing as, well, Prince Caspian’s Ben Barnes.
Parker, working from a script by first-timer Toby Finlay, decorates his fable with elegant Edwardian detail and gets sterling support from Colin Firth as Dorian’s epigram-spouting corruptor Henry Wotton. But about two-thirds through, he starts to lose faith in his source material, introducing some spurious hubbub and an inadvertently hilarious confrontation on the London Underground en route to an overblown, effects-laden climax.
Barnes, upstaged by a mouse in Caspian, fares better here, capably conveying his rake’s progress from gullible naïf to venal libertine. Yet even when he’s grappling with moral guilt, he’s never as compelling as, say, Matt Damon’s Mr Ripley, ensuring we never really care what he gets up to or what becomes of him.
That’s a pretty big flaw in a movie that requires us to empathise with his plight and spend almost two hours in his company. Another is the portrait itself, which leaves the ‘bad’ Dorian looking like Nanny McPhee.
No better or worse than Oliver Parker’s previous Wilde adaps, this polished affair is easy on the eye but cold to the touch. You end up wondering why it was made at all, beyond giving lazy schoolkids a pre-exam crib.