Dorian Gray (United Kingdom, 2009)

August 23, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Dorian Gray Poster

Oliver Parker has made a career out of adapting Oscar Wilde, with versions of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest already on video store shelves. For his latest, Parker has turned his attention to what may be Wilde's most famous novel: The Picture of Dorian Gray. His interpretation, for which he uses a screenplay by Toby Finlay, is simply called Dorian Gray, and it brings a modern sense of the lurid to a classic story. While Wilde's wit remains firmly entrenched, there's also a gruesome vein of gothic horror, and elements of the original which existed in the subtext or were merely hinted at are brought graphically into the open.

Dorian Gray casts Ben Barnes as the pretty boy Dorian and Colin Firth as his mentor in matters of self-gratification. Barnes, who achieved international recognition as the title character in Prince Caspian is fine as Dorian, although there are instances in which his range is strained. Firth, on the other hand, is nothing short of brilliant as Lord Henry Wotton. He chews on some of Wilde's best lines ("Conscience is just a polite term for cowardice", "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it") with the kind of relish that only a seasoned thespian can do.

The movie begins with Dorian - a handsome, kind, innocent young man - arriving in London on a day in the late 19th century to take over his grandfather's estate, which he inherited when the old man died. Dorian is quickly befriended by Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), who desires to paint his picture, and Lord Henry, who teaches life-lessons in pleasure. Dorian's growing vanity leads him to proclaim that he would trade his soul for the opportunity to remain young and virile - a deal that the Devil is all too happy to make. Soon, the portrait of Dorian painted by Basil becomes the repository for all of the moral and physical ills afflicting the man. Dorian attempts to remain "good" and proposes marriage to his actress girlfriend, Sibyl Vane (Rachel Hurd-Wood) but, after her death, there is no reining in his excesses.

As Dorian Gray adaptations go, this is not the most faithful, but it is among the most entertaining. With plenty of scares, gore, sex, and nudity, this comes as close to the exploitation genre as it does to a classical literature adaptation. Is there such at thing as a literate exploitation movie? Firth's performance elevates the film and Parker shows that not only does he have a deft hand when it comes to handling Wilde's dialogue, but he is adept at developing a creepy atmosphere. The re-creations of late 19th and early 20th century London are impeccable. Dorian Gray is not as blissfully enjoyable as Parker's An Ideal Husband, but it's at least as good as (and perhaps a little better than) his The Importance of Being Earnest and represents another feather in his Wilde cap.

Note: Despite having an impressive cast and crew, Dorian Gray was not picked up for theatrical distribution in the United States. The reasons are more economic than indicative of quality - U.S. distributors are increasingly wary of purchasing rights to any foreign film (even those without subtitles) that does not have a clear multiplex or art-house appeal. Dorian Gray, with its pastiche of horror and literary elements, fits into neither category and is therefore viewed as a "gamble" - something a risk-averse industry in unwilling to take. As a result, Dorian Gray is headed direct-to-video in the United States.

Dorian Gray (United Kingdom, 2009)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1