Details: (MA15+), In Cinemas 12 November 2009, United Kingdom, English
Synopsis: A corrupt young man somehow keeps his youthful beauty eternally, but a special painting gradually reveals his inner ugliness to all.
Like the painting, B-grade horror movie fast loses appeal.
Director Oliver Parker successfully mined the Oscar Wilde canon with The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband but he blows it completely with Dorian Gray. The Gothic tale of the effete young man who makes a pact with the devil sinks under the weight of inept acting (with the honorable exception of Colin Firth) and heavy-handed direction, and offers few scares and little tension.
Although the film was produced by the re-born Ealing Studios, its B-grade horror sensibility would have more suited to the house of Hammer. Roadshow is giving the movie a token cinema release (just one session per day at my local multiplex) en route to the DVD stores.
Just as dull and uninspiring as he was Prince Caspian in the last edition of the Chronicles of Narnia, Ben Barnes plays Dorian, an orphan who inherits his grandfather’s gloomy mansion. Quickly falling under the spell of the hedonistic dandy Lord Henry Wooton (Firth), Dorian seduces, then promptly discards actress Sybil Vane (Rachel Hurd-Wood, who’s nearly as vapid as Barnes).
Gray then embarks on a binge of orgies, seductions (a mother/daughter tryst is especially awful), drugs, sadomasochism and, ultimately, murder. Meanwhile his portrait painted by gay painter Basil (Ben Chaplin) starts to show signs of ageing and decay while Dorian’s appearance remains unblemished.
Years later after returning from a lengthy trip abroad, his recantation and affair with Wooton’s free-spirited daughter Emily (Rebecca Hall) are as unconvincing and short-lived as they are un-moving. I was utterly indifferent to his fate.
Barnes is a blank canvas – the fixed stare is his trademark look – as his face registers a tiny range of emotions, even when splattered with blood. He’s a far cry from the pleasure-seeking, anything-goes persona of a Mick Jagger of the 1960s, a latter-day counterpart. Always good value, Firth tosses off his character’s bitchy witticisms and epithets with his usual aplomb. Henry makes it plain he lusts after Dorian’s “youth and beauty,” but the young man has no other qualities he’d envy. There is a homo-erotic undercurrent to their relationship, but we’re not spared the sight of a sexual encounter between Dorian and Basil. The soft-core scenes of orgies and assorted debauchery are simply tedious.
Explaining what drew him to this story, Parker has said, “I was keen to delve into the darker side of Wilde’s works, liberate their dialogue from the plays, and create a new world on screen. As with every classic, there is an eternal dynamic. Its themes – those of obsessive beauty and youth – are urgent.”
Parker does use CGI effectively to conjure up a dark, decadent Victorian London, but I don’t think the film has anything new or meaningful to say about those themes. As for the painting, the face not only develops pustules and wrinkles, it oozes maggots. I don’t think old Oscar would have approved.
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