Unlike ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ or ‘An Ideal Husband’, whose Wildean theories are buried deeper beneath their stories, ‘Dorian Gray’ is a book of more explicit, often difficult ideas.
So it’s no surprise that Oliver Parker (‘St Trinians’), in his third Wilde film adaptation, has stripped out some of the more heady debates about art, beauty and the like, not least because he’s aiming for the sort of younger audience attracted by the casting of Ben Barnes (from the recent ‘Narnia’ films) as Gray. So the focus is on the surface narrative of Wilde’s novel: Gray’s ascent in London society on the arm of Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth) and his later descent on the arm of his own vanity as he sinisterly fails to age while a youthful portrait of himself in his attic turns into a painting of an elderly ogre.
What newcomer Toby Finlay’s sometimes daring script brings to the party is both a shift in time so that the story ends in the early 1920s and the addition of a possible redemptive love interest in the person of Emily Wotton (Rebecca Hall), Lord Henry’s daughter, and a stick with which the story tries to beat her Machiavellian father for his earlier misdeeds. These are interesting ideas, but they would work better if there was more decadence on show earlier on to nail Gray’s corruption: his initial flights of abandon in the city’s opium dens and brothels are not seedy enough and his rejection of his girlfriend Sybil (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is not as powerful or central as it should be (Hurd-Wood’s acting doesn’t help).
But things look up from the halfway point as Gray’s murder of an associate – and its dreadful effect on him – is claustrophobic enough to convince, and the film is particularly interesting when presenting Dorian as a Victorian out of time, pitching him against the Edwardian age, the car and the suffrage movement. Barnes’s ability to handle his character’s strange psychological journey is limited: he’s upstaged by the painting itself, which doesn’t just age; it putrefies, maggots and all.
Read our report from the set of the film here