Dorian Gray: set visit

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Next week sees Ben Barnes and Colin Firth come to our screens in a new version of Oscar Wilde’s classic novel 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'. Dave Calhoun visits the set of the film in the East End

Outside Wilton’s Music Hall off Cable Street in the East End there is a gaggle of nineteenth-century urchins smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups in a very twenty-first-century fashion. Inside the Victorian theatre – famous for its surviving fixtures and fittings, and now host to a new big-screen version of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ – dry ice hangs in the air, while outside in the alleyway Ben Barnes and Colin Firth are loitering in costume. The film’s writer, newcomer Toby Finlay, is keeping an eye on proceedings, looking serious and Byronic in a long coat as dark as his beard. Inside, director Oliver Parker is overseeing his third Wilde adaptation after ‘An Ideal Husband’ (1999) and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (2002) alongside his producer, Ealing Studios head Barnaby Thompson.

Finlay is telling me what he and his more seasoned collaborators are doing to turn this well-known book, which charts the adoption and corruption of young noble Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes) by the more worldly Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth), into a film that will work for a modern audience. Most radically, they have shifted the time period of the story forward so that instead of culminating in around 1890 – the year Wilde first published the story in Lippincott’s magazine – the film ends in the era of World War I. The hope is that Dorian’s lack of ageing will be even more disturbing and strange if he remains a Victorian in an Edwardian era of cars and women’s suffrage. The filmmakers have also invented a new character, Emily (Rebecca Hall), the daughter of Lord Henry and a potential redemptive love interest for Dorian.

Dorian Gray.jpg
Barnes and Parker on set
It’s Parker’s third stab at Wilde. ‘It was Harvey Weinstein who said to me,’ – he adopts a New York growl – ‘“You’ve got to do the box-set”.’ But this time Parker is working with a novel, so he feels more able to take liberties with his source, even to the extent of ditching much of Wilde’s dialogue. ‘The others were plays and the lines were at the forefront. But the dialogue is only one aspect here. Of course, if you’re not using some of it, why do it? But use too much and it kills it.’

Thompson knows that Wilde purists will be watching the results closely. ‘One is always going to be criticised. But when you’re developing the script, there’s a point when you reach a nice, literary adaptation and then you have to make a further leap into a movie to make it more visceral and cinematic. Most people know the myth of Dorian Gray. So it was about making the myth come alive as a proper gothic horror, which is what it always felt like it should be.’

The myth, as Thompson calls it, has already partly left the book behind. There have been numerous television, movie and stage versions, and just this July, Matthew Bourne’s modern dance version was back at Sadler’s Wells. While many are familiar with the idea of a portrait that ages horribly while its subject remains youthful, fewer will be aware of the lengthy debates about art and beauty that pepper Wilde’s book and so presumably won’t miss them when they don’t appear in the film. Thompson shrugs when I mention the more heady ideas in the novel. ‘These conceptual ideas fascinate Wilde, but in a movie they’re very difficult to pull off.’

Dorian Gray 2.jpg
Ben Barnes stars in 'Dorian Gray'
So how will the filmmakers present the famous ageing portrait? For the 1945 version, director Albert Lewin used colour in an otherwise black-and-white film. This time, suggests Finlay, we should expect a combination of a real painting and CGI. Parker shows me sketches of the painting in various stages, one of which shows a maggot crawling out of Dorian’s eye. The idea is that the portrait should appear to be putrifying as well as getting older.

While youth is a key theme of the story, it’s also a subject on the minds of the film’s makers, who hope to attract a younger audience. Which would explain the casting of Ben Barnes as Dorian, the pretty young actor best known to fans of the ‘Narnia’ films. ‘I think Ben will be a proper movie star; he’s very good-looking,’ says Thompson, before adding, 'I think he’s a good actor, too.’

Author: Interview: Dave Calhoun



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