BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Aug 21st, 2010 •

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There’ve been several versions of Oscar Wilde’s evil pretty boy story in the 2000’s alone. And many before. It’s a seductive tale with difficult narrative twists that strain credibility in even the best of celluloid translations. With all its subtext deeply buried, the original MGM version, directed by Albert Lewin in 1944, remains the best, most elegant and upsetting recounting of the novella. But this one deserves to be on the shelf next to the original; it fills in the missing portions that Hollywood standards in ’44 disallowed. They are good companions, these two.

While it carefully avoids being open to a label of exploitation, DORIAN GRAY does reveal the debauchery Dorian wallowed in, something the original wouldn’t have been allowed even if Lewin had wanted to. But he didn’t. One can see from his other films (PANDORA AND FLYING DUTCHMAN in particular, newly released by Kino) that his sensibilities would have stopped him at the point of ‘suggesting’ Dorian’s gay trysts, orgies, and sado-masochistic follies. Along the same lines, this latest Dorian’s retreat from Sybil Vane is likewise motivated through being given a taste – at a kind of bachelor party, only far more seductive – of the excesses awaiting him in his future life should he choose to go decadent.

Another scene explored more fully is Dorian’s re-entry into London society after decades away. This stylized tableau feasts on the cruelly aged features of everyone we’ve been introduced to over the course of the film. There they stand, gawking in psychic pain as Dorian walks into their midst, utterly unchanged by the years.

Much as I love George Sanders in almost anything he did (let’s pretend we didn’t see his somnambulistic zombie-walk in SOLOMON AND SHEBA…), and much as he’s been touted as giving one of his best performances as Lord Henry Wotton in the ’44 DG, I think Colin Firth captured Wilde’s cynical, instigating character far better. Sanders was made to read his epigrammatic dialogue in a droll, run-on monotone that often left me confused, with not enough time to savor and digest Wilde’s bitter wit. Firth takes the time to pause, making every line abundantly clear. On some level he may be no George Sanders, but the role is his.

Ben Barnes, likewise, is no Hurd Hatfield. There’s nothing else, anywhere in film history, quite like Hatfield’s delicate, queasy, off-putting beauty in the original DG. Barnes is sort of a Keanu Reeves clone, only a bit more gifted. But he’s very good as Dorian. He hits all the right notes, and never disappoints. Giving him a back story – as an abused child – is, I don’t know…? I guess they felt it was necessary. I didn’t. But it is suggested in the book, so it’s not a bogus insert.

Sybil Vane, in this version, is the stage performer Wilde originally conceived for her. I loved what Lewin did with the character however, and nobody trumps the pristine, virginal beauty of Angela Lansbury, singing “Little Yellow Bird” (Ms. Lansbury graces the commentary track of the MGM version). I like Rachel-Hurd Wood very much, and something interesting director Parker has inserted is a slight insinuation that had Dorian done the right thing and married her, she might have become a bit of a bitch and made him rue his decision. Ms. Lansbury gives in sadly to Dorian’s deflowering of her, and mournfully drifts away to her death, whereas Ms. Wood is much more proactive in the seduction, becomes angry when Dorian wavers, and then goes and drowns herself anyway. An interesting interpretation.

Dorian begins to crumble psychologically from all he’s done, particularly when faced with another exceptional woman, well cast in the form of Rebecca Hall. She’s an

off-beauty, feisty, sympathetic, and while I can’t quite buy why she embodies the demarcation point at which his ageless façade no longer compensates for his ceaseless evil, no other actress could have given the role a better go.
The homoerotic material is dealt with more boldly in this telling. There’s little left to subtext, and the aggressive gay sexual predator in Dorian is given full rein, as is his heterosexual appetite. He claims it all, and more, until his portrait is birthing maggots and issuing forth depraved moans. (On the commentary track, Screenwriter Toby Finlay calls Wilde’s tome “A how-to book for being a sociopath”)

And what about that kinetic portrait? In the ’44 version, it never changed in front of us; each time we were given a new glimpse of it, the film stock changed from B&W to Technicolor, and that packed a wallop. Here, the CGI technology is let loose, and though I’m ambivalent about the results, I certainly found the effects compelling.

Cinematography and art direction function together on a high level. Creative use of lenses constantly treats us to interesting frames and movement within them. The editing was my major problem with the film. At times the jump cuts are quite effective. But on a few crucial occasions things are made disruptively unclear by inappropriate edits. Near the big ending, for example, there’s a cutaway that is so short it left me uncertain whether I was seeing Dorian or his portrait. Using my DVD control, I first went back and watched it again. Still unclear. Then I stop-framed it, only to discover that it was neither Dorian nor his portrait, but Lord Henry fleeing the building! Several times I had to roll the film back and stop-frame in this way to satisfy myself about the filmmakers’ intentions.

But I think you can tell, in balance, that I’m happy with the new version, and if you’re as drawn to the novella as I’ve always been, I think you’ll get your entertainment’s worth out of it.

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3 Responses »

  1. A great and very insightful review. Colin Firth is such an incredible actor and it’s unfortunate that I think this won’t be seen by as many people because it’s direct to DVD.

  2. Hi Roy, I saw this on DVD in Cyprus about eight months ago (don’t know how that works. However…) and I enjoyed it too as a far more daring and faithful interpretation of the original story. As you say, Firth takes charge of his role but Barnes is a little bland, but siutably pretty and uncaring as Dorian, but it was visually quite glorious.
    One little note (sic) on ‘Little Yellow Bird’ – In the series ‘Murder She Wrote’ Lansbury’s character Jessica Fletcher visits her English cousin (sister?) in ‘Lahndan, guv’nor!’ (also played by Lansbury). Her relative is a music hall artiste, and guess which song she sings on stage…?

  3. Roy
    just watched this version with your review in mind and I must agree about Colin Firth….a perfect choice for Lord Henry above of all the other working actors in the UK…I could not help but notice that Mr. Firth is all but cornering the market in “gay” characterizations…beginning with ANOTHER COUNTRY with the openly gay Rupert Everett …then APARTMENT ZERO where Colin lusts for Hart Bochner before turning literally turning into him in the final reel…then MAMMA MIA where Colin may have done the deed with Streep in a flashback but is in the arms of a young man by the end of that cult musical….coming then full circle in A SINGLE MAN…you get my drift… far as this version of Dorian….I noticed Basil Hallword the painter of the portrait is now without a daughter to corrupt and that part of the story is moved over to Lord Henry which is a bit hard to believe since he is so openly gay in this version…even George Sanders was too far from straight to father a child in the Lewin version….I still feel that no screenwriter has really gotten it right yet so we will see that the future holds in that regard….as far as “many’ versions of Wilde’s tale I know of only the Hatfield version…the Helmut Berger version and the made for television one with Tony Perkins where Gray is a woman…enough said……..I too will add this one to the other two…if there were more films versions please let me know….there was also the one with Conrad Veidt and Lugosi from the 20’s….

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