Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dorian Gray (2009)

Spoilers ahoy!

(Note: This film has not yet been released in the USA)

Even if you haven't read the original book, or seen any of the film versions, odds are the name conjures the story. Dorian Gray, the beautiful young man whose portrait ages instead of him. As time goes by, the portrait shows not only age but also moral decay and disease, the ravages not only of time but of a sinful life.

Curiously, when published the short novel by Oscar Wilde was seen as immoral. Myopia in the extreme. Like all too many works that portray sin, past and present, it stood condemned even while clearly teaching a moral lesson. But moral critics often focus on minutia. Wilde was extravagantly, deliberately decadent and he wrote a novel about sin. Prudes condemned it and could not see the work for what it was. Much as some fundamentalists cannot get past the trapping of magic in Harry Potter to even notice the profoundly Christian values embodies in the series.

But all that is background...

The latest motion picture of Dorian Gray stars Ben Barnes, and he is one of the two weakest elements in this entertaining-but-hardly-deep adaptation. Each scene that Barnes plays is well enough in and of itself, but doesn't seem to have a through-line. They don't feel connected somehow. Previously best known as the title character in Prince Caspian, Barnes does however capture some of the dichotomy of Gray (possibly the most aptly named character in English literature). In this version, he is a boy pretending to be a man, and one who sadly never really grows up. He longs to be moral and successful, popular and beloved, welcomed and satiated. In a word, he is hungry. Or so the script would have you believe. Barnes does a workmanlike performance (I've seen plenty of professional actors who'd've done not as good a job) but we never feel the inner fire of this (eternally) young man.

Alas this is made a bit worse by the script. Not a bad adaptation, to be sure, but one that falls into some fairly obvious traps. The most obvious is to show Dorian's excesses, because these days you can get away with it. In practice, this means sex and drugs. And in the end, isn't that fairly blase? Much more troubling (as in other versions) is his treatment of other human beings as props. Is not blackmail a far worse act than visiting a brothel? Really? Just as cruelty makes a more vivid impression than drunkenness or promiscuity. But instead of cruelty, what we see is a kind of callousness. Murder, yes, but more in a fit of emotion than a coldly calculated action just to feel what it would be like.

Barnes' Dorian is neither wicked enough, nor repentant enough to make the story work. And much of that fault lies in the script.

On the other hand, the script also manages to be fun. There's an amusing thrill to see Dorian seduce his way through a circle of polite society ladies (and in one very amusing instance, daughter as well as mother). Colin Firth does his usual magnificent job as a deliberately decadent nobleman, Lord Wotton, one who says much but does very little and is hoist on his petard upon finding an acolyte who takes his ideas seriously. Most particularly this shows up in a new character, Emily--a daughter played by Rebecca Hall who (to Lord Wotton's horror) falls for Dorian as he does for her. One cannot help but think this is something of a cheat. In the original story, Dorian feels increasing despair as he realizes his own inability to love, to feel anything save boredom and nagging guilt. If in offering a way out, the author felt an extra element of tragedy added to the tale, I can only say the idea failed. Poignancy was substituted for power. Hall did as fine a job as one could ask for in the role, but the plot got in the way (Hall is an excellent actress and I highly recommend seeing her in The Prestige as well as Wide Sargasso Sea).

Likewise the lovely Rachel Hurd Wood does a fine job of playing Sybil Vane, Dorian's sweet and doomed first love. Again, though, the script gets in the way. Unlike any other version of this tale, I just did not understand her suicide. We simply don't get to know her well enough, and what we do see is a frankly a strong, brave young woman. The implication was that she felt her life to be ruined because she surrendered her virginity to Dorian. But that didn't ring "true." Again, returning to the original, she needs to have a much more vast emotional investment in Dorian than the one we see on film (and it frankly feels like a cheat that she drowned herself instead of swallowing lye).

The climax, with Hall's character included, is as special-effects-laden as one would expect in this kind of tale, albeit without a huge amount of point. Do we really gain anything by watching Dorian age and the painting youthen? At the same time, much of what it attempts to do works well enough--we are left with an idea of a genuine love destroyed by circumstance. Likewise the story of Lord Wotton himself is left in an interesting place, paradoxically more ethical yet ruthless.

Yet it doesn't really work as a version of Oscar Wilde's story, the one that has survived the test of time.

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