Dorian Gray -- Film Review

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One of the most cinematically popular of all the works of professional fop and serious literary artist, Oscar Wilde, "Dorian Gray" is upon us once again. Much wilder if not more Wildean, this new version by British director Oliver Parker professes to re-interpret the novel on which it's based, and it surely accomplishes that.

Whether or not the re-interpretation is always successful is another question entirely, but superb production values and imaginative, vigorous camerawork, music, and editing should carry the film a long way. It's not exactly clear who the audience is for this occasionally subtle literary adaptation that also aspires, almost against its will, to be a horror movie, but it deserves to find an audience somewhere. Ancillary sales should be much less ambiguous.

The timeless morality tale concerns a beautiful young man from the provinces newly arrived in London. Taken under the corrupt wing of Lord Henry Wotton (Firth), who sprinkles decadent Wildean bons mots on Dorian (Ben Barnes) like pixie dust, the pupil begins quickly to surpass his master in the amoral pursuit of pleasure before all else. 

The story's high concept is that when Dorian's portrait is painted on his arrival, a pact is made with the devil that ensures that the model will always remain fresh and young, no matter how dissolute his life becomes, while the telltale portrait, hidden away in the attic, ages and becomes horrifically deformed.

The excellent musical score recalls Hitchcockian motifs, most notably that of "Vertigo," and adds nicely to the overall mysterious flavor of the proceedings. Parker's approach is always to accentuate the visceral, whether it's the gobs of impasto paint applied by the portrait artist, or Dorian's frequent voluptuous forays into the world of raw sensuality. 

Naturally, this kind of approach slows things down a bit, and some viewers who don't fancy themselves as aesthetes (in other words, who don't like the very essence of Wilde's work) may find their patience being tried. Dedicated if not decadent aesthetes will, on the other hand, revel in the sensuousness of virtually everything connected with this film.

The portrait itself is the most problematic element of the film. In the 1945 version starring Hurd Hatfield, we only saw the painting at the very end, presumably to be stunned by its suddenly unveiled depiction of an old and ugly man. In Parker's version newer CGI techniques are perhaps overused, as we see the portrait again and again, each time animated with more and more squirming maggots, wounds appearing before our eyes, and in a final paroxysm of software, Dorian's entire writhing body rendered as a kind of a hologram that pops out of its frame. It is at these points that the film veers most dangerously toward becoming a horror movie, pure and simple.

Lots of things that were not in Wilde's original treatment find their way into the film, such as Dorian's flashbacks to a brutalized childhood, various murders, strong hints of sado-masochism, homosexual encounters, and, perhaps the most entertaining, a moment of intercourse with a debutante daughter, followed by intercourse with her mother, while the girl cowers under the bed. But a good argument can be made that these extrapolations in no way distort Wilde's original, but in fact merely update it to a level that modern, jaded audiences will be able to find, in fact, decadent and upsetting.

Production Companies: Ealing Studios, Fragile Films
Cast:  Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Rachel Hurd-Wood
Director: Oliver Parker
Screenwriter: Toby Finlay
Producer: Barnaby Thompson
Executive producer:  Paul Brett, Simon Fawcett, James Hollond, Xavier Marchand.
Director of photography: Roger Pratt.
Production designer: John Beard.
Music: Charlie Mole.
Costume designer: Angela Egan.
Editor: Guy Bensley.

No rating, 112 minutes.
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