Though adapted often for television and in weird spinoffs like Pact with the Devil, this is only the third major talkie version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – following Albert Lewin’s classy 1945 film with Hurd Hatfield and Massimo Dallamano’s kooky mod 1970 update with Helmut Beger. Though it’s one of those premises everyone knows, Wilde’s acidic, elegantly decadent novel holds traps for the adaptor. Without the proper cynical tone, it can turn horridly moralist (Wilde was annoyed when people read the book as a moral tract and added a note to insist it wasn’t) and several plot which remain stubbornly hard to dramatise (it also has a story that spans the decades – but seems to begin and end in the 1890s). Oliver Parker has tackled heritage Wilde twice before (An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest), but here flashes back to an apprenticeship with Clive Barker – Dorian and Lord Henry even simultaneously quote the poster line for Hellraiser, ‘there are no limits’.
From the outset, a mid-story byte of a bloody Dorian disposing of the painter’s corpse (in a trunk monogrammed with his initials – which ought to be a no-no), this comes across as late-period Hammer horror, complete with stage school urchins and gin-sodden glamour model trollops. Screenwriter Toby Finlay comes up with an abusive grandfather who has striped Dorian’s back with whip-welts and gave him a horrible time in childhood in the very same attic room where the picture gets stashed (a heavy-handed ‘explanation’ for his susceptibility to evil), so gloom and violence hang even over the early, conversational, epigram-laden stretches as Dorian (Ben Barnes, with an Oscar ‘do) comes to London as a naïve lad and falls in with painter Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin) and cynic Lord Henry (Colin Firth). The luckless Sybil Vane is inevitably played by Rachel Hurd-Wood, typecast as pre-Raphaelite necrophile pin-ups (An American Haunting, Peter Pan, Perfume, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking) – in lieu of that impossible-to-film bit about her radiance in music hall Shakespeare (Lewin made her a singer instead) and Dorian’s smug love test, she commits suicide when pregnant and abandoned, a cliché of Victorian dastardy Wilde would have scorned.
The film’s conception of Dorian’s sins is in line with The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll or Taste the Blood of Dracula (the Victorian stripper with a snake shows up again), and reverts to the sort of Reefer Madness-style road-to-ruin tale Wilde was parodying: even the famously laughable Eric, or Little by Little isn’t as schematic as this. Dorian begins his slide with a single puff on one of Lord Henry’s cigarettes and is then seen getting into opium, whores, multiple seductions (daughter and mother at the same party), young men (though not very many compared to female extras), bare-knuckles boxing, murder and (vilest of sins) rich cream-and-jam scones! Most other versions of the tale shy away from showing the portrait in its interim states, but this uses CGI to show it changing – a process accompanied oddly by writhing maggots – and, in the finish, even to have the corrupt ruin of Dorian loom out of the canvas. The picture is suitably ugly, with bad teeth and scraggly hair, but the full reveal still provokes giggles – perhaps because it’s been set up with too many weirdly distorted painting’s POV shots and contrivances whereby supporting actors behold its hideousness and pantomime utter fear.
It divides its plot into two parts set twenty-five years apart, which means it loses the sense of years passing Dorian by. Part One is the 1890s set-up, with the painting, Sybil, the degradation and Basil’s murder. We pick up again during World War I as Dorian returns unchanged after a world tour and gets involved with a new character, Henry’s daughter Emily. Rebecca Hall is supernaturally beguiling as a suffragette shutterbug, though the promise of a woman who punctures Dorian’s smugness is wasted as, after her first scenes, she becomes another camp-follower and gets dragged into a finish which badly muffs Wilde’s finale, throwing in a Corman-style conflagration as Henry works out what’s happening with the picture, finds Basil’s bloody scarf lying about the attic and throws a lamp at the magic painting. There’s even a sequence in which Dorian murders Emily for creeping into his attic to look at the picture which is instantly revoked as he wakes up in bed next to her after a bad dream – despite the fact we’ve already had flash-forwards to this killing.
It has fetching bits from Emilia Fox, Fiona Shaw and Maryam d’Abo and manages an acceptable London gothic look, but it feels like a straggler from that clutch of gothic movies which came out after Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the early ‘90s. Ramping up the ‘orrors might well have been a clever tack, but this is a surfacey, awkward retelling of the story. Firth is okay as Lord Henry, but nowhere near as definitive in the role as George Sanders (I’d presume Parker thought Rupert Everett too obvious a choice for the role, but obviousness doesn’t seem to have deterred this film from anything else). Barnes, admittedly stuck with a difficult role, is too often just blank: he manages the early cruelties reasonably well, but falls short when the film tries to have its monster’s conscience reawaken in order to propel things towards a fire-and-brimstone climax that can’t match Wilde’s understated ‘it was not till they examined the rings that they recognised who it was’.