Review by Jack Foley
OSCAR Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is given a brash, Gothic big screen makeover by director Oliver Parker that flatters to deceive as much as its central character.
The film looks good and boasts at least one genuinely fine performance, but it is let down by an uneven tone and a curiously flat performance from its handsome leading man.
Ben Barnes (of The Chronicles of Narnia fame) plays Dorian Gray who arrives in Victorian London determined to make a name for himself.
But after falling under the hedonistic spell of Lord Wotton (Colin Firth), Gray is drawn into a cavalier lifestyle that comes at the expense of his early love affair with blushing actress Sybil (Rachel Hurd-Wood), and which prompts him to commission a self-portrait.
It’s the painting, though, that begins to bare the scars of Gray’s lifestyle, ageing in his place, and plunging the young aristocrat into a spiral of sex, drugs and decadence that threatens to destroy his soul.
Redemption may be found years later, however, when he meets a young photographer, Emily Wotton (Rebecca Hall)… although her father is loathe to approve of their union.
In the right hands, the role of Gray is a gift of a part that requires both charisma and cunning on the part of the actor playing him. A young Johnny Depp would have feasted until his hearts’ content.
Sadly, Barnes lacks the gravitas to turn Gray into a really complex, even tragic human being. He has the looks, and the odd moment of charisma, but his performance is mostly one-dimensional, which comes at the expense of the film’s emotional factor.
Firth, on the other hand, is much better as Lord Wotton, positively revelling in the opportunity to corrupt and bedevil, issuing his lines with bitter glee and commanding the screen whenever he is around. He is the principal reason for seeing the film.
Parker’s direction, too, creates a dark, decadent Victorian London that oozes foreboding from every dirty street corner, thereby creating a surreal atmosphere in keeping with the supernatural element of the ageing painting.
But Parker isn’t devoid of blame in Dorian Gray‘s shortcomings either. The uneven tone he creates also negates the film’s emotional impact, particularly in the tragedy surrounding Gray’s life and loves.
Both Rachel Hurd-Wood and Rebecca Hall aren’t given enough time to make their characters mean more in the grand scheme of things, while the ambiguous climax feels rushed.
The decision to update the setting to Victorian London in a bid to give the story more contemporary resonance isn’t really capitalised upon, while the inclusion of new characters (Hall’s in particular) and revised endings and scenarios also seem pointless, adding little or nothing to Wilde’s original tale.
Hence, while the film undoubtedly boasts curiosity value and keeps you engrossed, it fails to make any lasting impression and raises more questions than it ultimately answers – with Barnes’ leading man suitability primary among them.
Running time: 112mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: January 18, 2010
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Colin Firth interview
- Dorian Gray Photo Gallery