NEM // 2009 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 30th, 2010
Forever Young. Forever Cursed.
"There's no shame in pleasure. Man just wants to be happy. But society wants him to be good. And when he's good, he's rarely happy. But when he's happy, he's always good."
Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes, Prince Caspian) is a wealthy young man who has just inherited his grandfather's huge estate. Dorian is a friendly, quiet, easily impressionable fellow who doesn't have many friends and doesn't get out much. His first task upon moving into his grandfather's mansion is to pose for a huge portrait being painted by artist Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin, The Thin Red Line). However, once the painting is nearly finished, Dorian is eager to get out and about. At a party, he's introduced to Lord Henry Wolcott (Colin Firth, A Single Man). Henry is delighted at the opportunity to lead an innocent young man into trouble, and introduces Dorian to a world of unchecked hedonism.
Dorian is enjoying this newfound lifestyle immensely, particularly when he notices that his irresponsible behavior is having absolutely no adverse effect upon him. His youth and vibrance remain eternal, but his portrait slowly ages and reflects the bumps and bruises that should be displayed on Dorian's body. As time goes on, Dorian begins to take bigger risks and play more dangerous games, leading him into a world of drug-fueled orgies, violence, and even murder. Does he have hope of redemption?
The tale of Dorian Gray is so naturally cinematic; I'm somewhat amazed that it hasn't been given an endless series of adaptations over the years ala Little Women, Treasure Island, Pride & Prejudice, the Sherlock Holmes, stories and so on. The first feature film based on Oscar Wilde's only novel was 1945's The Picture of Dorian Gray, starring George Sanders and Hurd Hatfield. Obviously, much of Dorian's hedonistic lifestyle could not be explicitly depicted in 1945, so now we have the 2009 adaptation (simply entitled Dorian Gray) that holds absolutely nothing back. Though this lurid melodrama is unrestrained in terms of content, the film itself seems curiously restrained at times. Reviews of the film weren't exactly enthusiastic, so I suppose it's not too surprising that the film is being dumped straight-to-DVD here in the United States. Even so, I found it engaging if not entirely satisfying.
The essential difficulty Dorian Gray seems have is in terms of tone. The film falls somewhere between an over-the-top bit of gothic horror like Bram Stoker's Dracula or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the quiet restraint of a Merchant/Ivory film. Rather than actually establishing a middle ground, it bounces like a ping-pong ball from one extreme to the other, allowing quiet observation to exist alongside almost laughably overheated moments. It's by no means the ultimate adaptation of the story (just because Dorian is superficial doesn't mean a film about him needs to be), but it does have a certain charm about it.
Most of that charm is provided by the two principle cast members. I found Ben Barnes very underwhelming in his breakout role as Prince Caspian, but his turn in Easy Virtue was solid, and he's even better in Dorian Gray. Ably capturing the journey from good-natured innocence to unrestrained lust, Barnes handles demanding scenes with unwavering confidence. Even better is Colin Firth, who takes a somewhat unconvincing character and makes him work. In the early scenes, Lord Henry is so gleefully diabolical that I was half-convinced the character was going to turn out to be Satan himself ("Giving into temptation is the only way to cure it," he declares dryly). This contrasts dramatically with the later scenes in which Henry is an embittered, almost tragic figure, but Firth makes the transition with ease.
The film's gloomy setting works nicely for this story, and the occasionally bombastic Charlie Mole score enjoyably depicts every moment as somehow threatening or ominous. The filmmakers seem torn between depicting Gray's hedonistic exploits as ugly or exciting; an approach that doesn't work as often as it should. In addition, the endless scenes of orgies and bloodshed just become a bit old hat after a while and lose their effect. The best moments are those rooted in something deeper than surface-level worldliness; consider the sequence in which Dorian seduces a young virgin before turning his charms on her mother. It's difficult to actually like Dorian or Henry, but the film grants them enough complexity that we're permitted to understand their motivations and occasionally empathize with them.
Dorian Gray arrives on Blu-ray with a very respectable 1080p/1.78:1 hi-def transfer. The film has a brooding, blueish tint much of the time and the darker scenes benefit from considerable depth and nuance. The daytime scenes are a bit flat at times, but it's not enough of a problem to complain about. The level of detail is strong, while flesh tones are warm and accurate. What really impresses is the audio, which proves surprisingly strong and immersive. Charlie Mole's score comes through with room-rattling strength at times, while some of the darker scenes boast unnervingly complex sound design. Supplements include an audio commentary with director Oliver Parker and screenwriter Toby Finley, while a handful of featurettes ("Make Up and Wardrobe," "The Painting," "Smithfield Market," and "Visual Effects") are very short and not really worth the time. You also get some deleted scenes, a blooper reel and a photo gallery.
If you're inclined to like moody period films and gothic melodrama, there's enough quality stuff of that nature in Dorian Gray to make the experience worthwhile. Those less enthusiastic about such elements probably shouldn't go any further than a rental.
Dorian Gray is very, very guilty, but the film and Blu-ray release are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Blooper Reel
* Photo Gallery