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Non-Review Review: Dorian Gray

I thought that monster remake mania wasn’t kicking off until The Wolfman finally gets released? This Oscar Wilde adaptation is an odd beast: one part slow, stately and almost cumbersome exploration of a boy who can never grow up and another part Universal horror movie for the MTV generation. It’s a very strange mix which works in parts and fails in others. I’m fairly sure I’m satisfied with my viewing experience, if not completely won over.

The portrait of the writer as a young man?

The portrait of the writer as a young man?

The parts that work best in this picture are the development of Wilde’s themes. What if never growing up wasn’t quite as appealing as it may sound? Surely facing the consequences of youthful impulsiveness and recklessness are what grant us maturity and restraint? If those penalties that we pay are taken away, what tools has life to educate us in the ways of the world? There are some interesting ideas thrown around and it’s in looking at these that the movie finds its heart. There are a few nice and effective shots from the director of old buildings or the characters strolling amidst the mausoleums which work well and subtly hammer home the points.

Of course, Wilde himself was quite a subtle man (for all his wit and presence). The movie doesn’t seem to respect that taste for subtlety – at times it seems to lack self-restraint, much like its young protagonist. What the novel left implied (albeit strongly) is delivered here in spades upon spades. Sexy montages after sexy montages, even to the point where the film seems to literally give Dorian “magic fingers”. I’d sell my soul for eternal youth and magic fingers. Most of the shots seem sensational and the movie would do alright without them – much as it would do alright without the trippy editing that the director has forced upon the film. Everything is cutting and buzzing in a way that seems ridiculously out of step with the occasional more graceful shot (such as those mentioned above).

Surprisingly, most of the other over-the-top monster movie tropes work quite well. Casting the painting as a living, moving entity is not subtle or particularly innovative, but it works quite well. Watching maggots eat at the canvas or something rustle underneath the cover is quite effective in this era of “he’s right behind you” or “watch out for the maniac with the axe!” scares. It calls to mind the older days of the Hammer Horror films, for better or worse. The film does take the idea a little bit too far, in that we see the portrait actually move occasionally through CGI, but it balances it quite well throughout. Oddly, the scenes where the film embraces its cheesier aspects (such as an unstable camera tracking in and out of focus over an opium den) are those that work, but the film does take it a little too far at times (giving us portrait-vision, as if the portrait is stalking our leads).

The production design is fairly high, as you’d expect from a British period production. The British always do history so well. Grand rooms look epic decked out in period style and Whitechapel looks suitably grim and depressing (even though the entire district seems to be little more than a single street). It’s interesting to see Gray stalking Whitechapel in the 1890s, calling vaguely to mind Jack the Ripper – there was much speculation (and still is) that the Ripper was a man of class calling to the area to exploit the working class inhabitants, much as these upper class men call to the area to indulge their own whims and fantasies at the expense of a population that will do anything for some silver. There is an interesting speculation that the book contains the famous murderer’s identity, but don’t tell Inspector Abberline when he pops up in The Wolfman. Talking about the design, it is generally top notch, but some of the CGI effects look a little less than convincing – no more or less so than any major studio blockbuster.

The casting – with one huge exception – isn’t great. Ironically Ben Barnes seems to young to play the eponymous protagonist. He never seems particularly credible once he moves past the doe-eyed innocence of the first ten minutes. Rebecca Hall does her best in an underwritten role – like she normally does – but you’ll find little here to remind you this is the woman who made thankless parts work in The Prestige and Frost/Nixon. I hate to single out an actor as absolutely terrible, but Rachel Hurd-Wood is possibly the worst actress I’ve seen all year. She seems like she’s reading the clues to a crossword puzzle rather than delivering dialogue as the young woman who captures Gray’s heart early on.

The one exception that I am talking about is Colin Firth. I am mainly immune to the charms of the Firth, having never seen him emerge from the water in his undershirt. I am told that it is a deeply spiritual moment in any person’s life. Still, he’s also been solid and respectable, playing the same character over and over again in a variety of different times and geographic locations. Here he gets the chance to show a little range, but I’ll admit that the part is perfect for him. Lord Henry is clearly a reflection (albeit distorted) of Wilde, much as Dorian is a reflection (albeit distorted) of Lord Henry. As such, he gets all the best lines, which Firth delivers with a wry style but just enough stiff-upper-lipped-ness that you doubt whether even he really believes his hedonistic philosophy. Indeed, Firth – known for playing characters anchored by class or repressed by their nature – manages to perfectly evoke the character’s hypocritical nature. He critiques social moors, but he still lives in fear of them. It is no coincidence that it is Dorian who breaks the rules of social conduct in the wagers between the pair. Lord Henry treats Dorian as a chance to vicariously relive his youth, channelling all his pettiness and irresponsibility into the young man in a way that mirrors how Dorian transfers his own scars and age into the portrait. In the end, like Victor Frankenstein, Lord Henry creates what he sought to create, but he is horrified by it.

So, it’s not a classic by any means, but it’s a watchable movie. It contains a host of smart ideas and an interesting character (sadly not the lead), but all are the invention of good old Oscar Wilde. The movie is the best when it allows these things to come to the fore rather than trying to impress us with camera editing for audiences with ADD. There are better films this year, but there are also far worse.

The film might not win any Oscars, but it does win the prestigious most-uncomfortably-sexually-explicit-movie-I’ve-watched-with-my-gran-this-year award. It was actually my gran – a fan of the 1945s Oscar-winning version – who wanted to see it. The previous winner of that distinguished award was Brokeback Mountain, which my aunt thought would be the most inspired film choice because myself and my dad and my uncle like cowboy movies, and the women like romance. It’s a long story. For the record, my gran thinks this was a good movie, but not a great one.

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