E1 Entertainment // 2009 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // September 3rd, 2010
Narcissus, gazing at his image in the pool, wept. When his friend, passing by enquired the reason, Narcissus replied, "I weep that I have lost my innocence."
His friend answered, "You should wiser weep that you ever had it." -- Peter Straub, Ghost Story
In 2009, director Oliver Parker (Othello, An Ideal Husband), brought an updated version of Oscar Wilde's novel of duality to the screen.
Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes, Prince Caspian), young and innocent, returns to the family home after the death of his grandfather. Shortly thereafter he meets up with two men who will profoundly change his life: Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin, Me and Orson Welles), an artist infatuated with Dorian's beauty, and Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth, Bridget Jones's Diary), an aristocrat devoted to hedonism, and only too willing to recruit Dorian as his padawan. Basil creates a stunning life-size portrait of Dorian, one that captures Gray's youth and vitality to such extent that Dorian idly wishes that the portrait could age instead of him.
I opened with that quote from Ghost Story story mainly because it seems to capture a sense of loss that is curiously absent from the movie. What exactly are we to make of Mr. Gray's odd tale? Wilde, heavily influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson's own classic tale of duality, used Dorian Gray as a means of commenting on Victorian society. Unfortunately, despite an interesting story, when the dust is settled, even Lord Henry Wotton seems at a loss as to what it all means. A number of changes were made to the original story, particularly in the last third of the movie, and the while the changes work on their own, they do not effectively merge with the first part of the movie, so that the last third seems like a different movie. Establish Wotton's daughter as a new love interest for Dorian is a great idea, but that plot change demands a matching change in Wotton's character. His paternal protection has to be reconciled with his well-established attitudes towards pleasure. The film ducks the issue for the most part, assuming that the shift will simply be accepted as a father's concern for his daughter. But the question remains Ã ³has fatherhood changed Wotton, or was he a poser from the beginning? Some sort of reckoning is called for, but never appears. By that point, the plot is caught up in the breakneck pace of the conclusion, a pace no doubt designed to hide the fact that the conclusion makes no sense whatsoever.
For all the plot problems, the acting is strong. Ben Barnes shines in the title role, imbuing the character with great presence and vitality. It's quite an accomplishment, given that it's hard to really sympathize with Dorian. Colin Firth has fun playing Wotton, tossing off a endless series of Wilde aphorisms (as well as a few cribbed from Walter Pater) with great relish. Firth handles both aspects well, but the script doesn't effectively handle the transformation. Rebecca Hall (The Prestige) shines as Wotton's daughter Emily; her chemistry with Barnes is palpable, providing the impetus for the film's final act. Less compelling is the chemistry between Barnes and Rachel Hurd-Wood (An American Haunting), who plays Gray's first, doomed love. There's just nothing particularly memorable about any of her scenes. Better chemistry with Sybil would have given the later scenes with Emily greater resonance, as there would be a greater sense of Dorian not wanting to lose true love a second time (as suggested in the novel).
The titular portrait perhaps could have been handled with a bit more restraint. CGI was used to morph the picture as Dorian degenerated, but it gets a little out of hand. Parker explains some of the ideas in the commentary -- he wanted maggots to emerge from the painting to reflect Dorian's moral decay. A bit literal, perhaps, but OK. But at times the CGI gets completely out of hand, particularly at the end when the painting seems to take on a life of its own. The sad downside of CGI is that it has become so easy that too few directors know when to stop.
Video and audio are both strong; the audio in particular deserves special notice, as it effectively uses the surround field to enhance the gothic mood, making effective use of the lower registers. The menu makes you think you're in for a wealth of extras, but they turn out to be quite the disappointment. The various featurettes are ridiculously brief; in addition, the one on the special effects seems unfinished. It's as though they just chunked in whatever footage was handy, including an exceedingly unfunny blooper reel. The commentary track with Parker and screenwriter Toby Finlay, however, is worth a listen.
The film looks and sounds magnificent. Oliver Parker has a great sense for visuals, and that sense is on full display here. Just as Dorian inhabits a very sensuous realm, the film is itself sensuous, each frame full of textures, from the brocaded wallpaper and the grain of the paneling in Dorian's home to the dingy, water-stained walls in the theater where Dorian meets Sybil. In addition, Parker does some nice lighting tricks to accentuate Dorian's descent into depravity without actually changing his physical appearance.
Dorian Gray is an intriguing movie, until it derails in the final act. Apart from that, the major crime here is the array of empty extras.
Not guilty, despite a somewhat paint-by-numbers finale.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted scenes
* Wikipedia: Dorian Gray
* Wikipedia: Oscar Wilde