Back from the Future Entry: Dorian Gray (2009)

19 Nov


If you haven’t heard of the most recent adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s best known work, then it’s probably because you aren’t spending your spare time stalking hot British men like Ben Barnes.

Having said that, yes, there is more to the movie than Barnes’s well-dressed hotness.

He gets naked, too.

The Portrait of Dorian Gray is one of those plum stories that I think most actors hope to be a part of–which is a double-edged sword, because only the young, hot actors can hope to even read for the part. And forget poor guys like Ray Winstone–unless there’s a special production aimed only at bears, it’s kind of a restrictive choice.

You need an actor who isn’t just hot, but beautiful. Someone who is both handsome and timeless, who you could imagine springing from a painting by Waterhouse or Caravaggio.

You need someone young. Someone who is on the edge of that perfect balance of beauty and maturity, whose face isn’t yet marred by the mileage of age.

You need someone who is both innocent and cruel.

This last is crucial – many actors excel at doing one or the other, but not both. Especially depending on how the production handles the character of Dorian, who himself is more of a blank canvas than a fleshed-out character: a Dorian who is too cruel is too clearcut a villain, when at least part of the story paints him as victim, too.

I wish Dorian Gray had been a more energetic entry to the canon of adaptations; the costumes and sets are beautiful, and the cast of seasoned veterans (and newcomer Barnes) play the story well, but overall the movie feels a little restricted; as if they hadnt’ quite dared to take more risks than those of the story. Colin Firth as the world-weary, wicked Henry Wotten is perfect,  and Ben Chaplin as Basil Hallward is another bit of inspired casting.

Can you spot what's wrong with this picture?

Of course the whole of the movie is Barnes’s performance as Gray–a young man whose childhood was marred by abuse and tragedy, and who has only just come to London after inheriting his Grandfather’s estate upon the old man’s death.

Immediately he is taken in and groomed by Wotten to be a high society type, and begins down a road of guilt and excess that would have put  Iggy Pop and most of the Rolling Stones to shame.

The eponymous portrait, painted by Basil and unwittingly cursed by Wotten, bears the marks of this life of excess, depicting both the physical damage of so much sadistic partying, and the mental damage of Gray’s cruelty.

What’s interesting is that the filmmakers made a massive mistake in interpreting Gray’s motivations, here– they assumed that because he bears no indications of his life of excess on his body, he is ‘free of consequence.’ He’s described in their making-of featurette as a kind of proto-American Psycho, a sociopath in the making.

Barnes, however, doesn’t really play Gray that way. He plays him more as someone who doesn’t realize his impact on others, rather than someone who doesn’t care about them. He’s young and naive, and as he becomes more and more evil certainly more selfish and sadistic, but it never seems as if he’s intentionally setting out to ruin other people’s lives. In a more capable filmmaker’s hands, he might have recalled John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons, the definitive object when it comes to depicting Rolling Whoremongery, but he comes off as more like a very young version of same, and then later creates his own character as an arch, jaded libertine with the face of an angel. Towards the end of the film he’s very much aware of the ruinous effect he’s had on others, and even attempts to steer people away from himself to preserve them.

In all, I think this adaptation was definitely watchable–as I mentioned, the costumes are great, the supporting cast perfect and Barnes does a marvelous job commanding every frame he’s in, but overall it doesn’t feel terribly imaginative–as a horror film it is far too light, as a thriller it has no suspense, and it’s very dark and violent for a costume drama.

Seriously, how could they just change his eyes like that? They're so striking!

I can’t help imagining what this might have been in the hands of Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine) or even Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge), or maybe someone like Danny Boyle; there’s a lot of gay subtext that was barely touched on, and my overall impression of the film was that it was very dimly-lit and nobody had too good a time.

Which, you know, the whole point was to make his languid life of pleasure look COOL.



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