Dorian Gray (2009)
Reviewed by Gareth Jones
Starring Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Rebecca Hall
Directed by Oliver Parker
Since its first publication in 1890, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray has seen many adaptations, both direct and indirect, to the film world and the character even made his way to graphic novels with Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The latest conversion of this timeless story, Oliver Parker’s Dorian Gray, has just landed in UK cinemas - but is it a capable adaptation or a crippled old mess?
The story itself concerns Dorian (Ben Barnes), a talented and exceptionally handsome young man, who agrees to have a portrait painted by his artistic friend Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin). After being introduced to the charismatic Lord Henry (Colin Firth), the impressionable Dorian begins to take Henry’s philosophy on pleasure-seeking as the base of existence a little too much to heart. When a throwaway comment regarding handing over his soul in return for eternal pleasure sees the portrait itself act as a magnet for Dorian’s sins, he finds that he remains eternally youthful, beautiful and mesmerising. With his lust for debauched satisfaction growing ever larger, and the painting ever more horrific, Dorian turns to murder to protect his secret and hurtles towards his own destruction.
Despite changing a number of elements, Parker’s adaptation should receive recognition for staying very faithful to the original material and not shying away from the violent and sexual details of Dorian’s exploits. Barnes, previously seen as Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia is perfectly cast as Gray. A picture of male beauty if there ever was one (he also looks disturbingly like Timothy Olyphant occasionally, in my opinion – I think it’s the eyes), Barnes carries the role almost effortlessly – never coming across as forced or particularly melodramatic during his transition from wide-eyed new arrival in London to grotesquely self-indulgent hedonist.
Colin Firth is given the best material to work with as Lord Henry, and delivers a fantastic performance. I’ve never been a fan of Firth, but found his realisation of Henry delightfully endearing and honest even though the character himself is a spineless wannabe rogue. He preaches his beliefs to Dorian via quotable titbits but never really has the gall to follow through with his own aspirations, and his horror upon realising the truth of his very own Frankenstein’s Monster can easily be felt.
Visually, Parker brings a terrific rendition of turn-of-the-century London to the screen, while for the most part avoiding slipping into the type of overtly gothic imagery found in similar adaptations such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. Since most of the story takes place amongst the prosperous, socialite aristocracy this approach serves the film very well. A lot is crammed into the runtime, but some inventive editing keeps things moving along with large gaps of time occurring via a single edit rather than a fade or montage. While slightly disorientating at first, it too works in favour of the narrative.
The mutating picture itself is used to great effect in Dorian Gray, with subtle CGI used to perform its changes. Towards the latter section, the picture begins breathing (delivering a decent jump scare as it does), torturing Dorian with its horrible, rasping respirations. This really adds to the tension here, as you can’t wait to see exactly what lies covered in the attic. A few close-ups of further mutations occurring cut together in montage with Dorian indulging in all manner of sex and drug-related hedonism built up heady expectations of what kind of horrid creature we were going to see in the end. Ultimately (and dare I say, disappointingly) the man in the painting is a more realistic depiction of an infected, vile and loathsome creature than the more fantastical monster I’d hoped for. Still, its effective and the (rather good) CGI-laden ending is a bombastic and theatrical way to finish the movie. It’s pulled off well, so I don’t believe the purists have much to complain about there.
There isn’t much gore and violence in the film, but what exists is effective. We have a splashy stabbing, chopped up sloppy body parts, a man gets mangled up before dying and a little more. It’s not entirely necessary, but welcome nonetheless.
Now, the negative aspects of the film. As mentioned, Dorian Gray tries to pack a whole lot of narrative into a small time-frame. This leaves some story elements and plot points uncomfortably underdeveloped, such as the fate of Dorian’s first fiancé. This isn’t a huge issue as everything moves along at a good pace, never bogged down, feeding the audience almost just enough. The main issue is the character of Dorian himself. The main effect of this tale requires empathy with the protagonist (here, anti-hero) which simply doesn’t occur here. Right to the bitter end, Dorian is willing to kill friends to protect his secret, only showing a mediocre piece of true repentance in the final minutes. This simply isn’t enough for modern audiences – since we never see, nor feel, this man truly realise the ramifications of what he has done the finale feels emotionally detached. As an audience we’re never particularly concerned for Dorian, simply watching the story of a man’s journey down an amoral path to hell.
Of course this does work if that is the intention, but will leave an empty feeling in the stomachs of most moviegoers. At the end, you simply don’t feel that Dorian got a bum deal or didn’t deserve what he ended up with. He simply doesn’t show enough remorse and no, standing at a gravestone crying for five minutes does not equal truthfully remorseful.
Given a little more work on this side of Dorian, this potentially could have been the most dramatic, engaging and affecting adaptation of Wilde’s story. As it stands, however, it’s still a very respectful retelling and study of man’s inherent quest for self-destruction given the removal of personal ramifications. In the end, it isn’t how you appear that means something, it’s the legacy your acts leave behind – a theme driven home wonderfully by Firth’s Lord Henry in the final shot as he stares as the now immaculate looking painting... “My dear boy, who can bear to look at you now?”
3 1/2 out of 5
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