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12. Wilde (1997), dir. Brian Gilbert

IMDb page here. Watched in Brum with Mum on DVD.

Oscar Wilde and I have a History. Like many teenagers, around the age of 15 I thought he was LIEK OMG SO COOL AND CONTRAVERSHUL. I worshipped his witty aphorisms, cultured decadence and jibes at the establishment, spent hours reading Ellman's biography of him in the school library, and set myself to devouring every word he'd ever written. Well, actually in the event I think I skipped quite a lot of the lit crit and the poetry. But, by any reasonable standards, I did my homework.

Moving into my twenties, the passion began to fade, as excessive adulation always does. I realised that Wilde had only been a human being like the rest of us, and that plenty of other people were just as clever, perceptive and eloquent as him. In fact, I began to find him pretentious and tedious. This is probably more the fault of people who think that quoting him liberally makes them seem funny and intelligent than it ever was his, but the effect was the same. "Get over yourself!", I wanted to scream down the century. When this film came out, I went to see it in the cinema at Oxford - but by then as much for old times' sake and because Stephen Fry was in it as anything else. Clearly, it didn't have that much impact on me at the time, because on this rewatch I found that there were vast swathes of it I had completely forgotten. I remembered touching scenes with his children, arguments with Bosie, performances of his plays and the period in jail - but that was about it, really. Very little about Robbie Ross, for instance, or about his direct interactions with the Marquess of Queensberry.

Since then, my opinion has settled and balanced a little. I still find some of the one-liners rather trite - but recognise that they weren't when he first came up with them, and that he probably would have cringed himself at the way they're used now. As for his stance as a self-proclaimed aesthete and general artiste (dahling!), I can appreciate better now that it was something which the Zeitgeist of the times demanded someone play about with, and that it was in a way as much a part of his professional life as his plays or poems were. I've started going to performances of some of his plays again, and discovered rather deeper themes in them than I'd remembered previously. And I've even had his Complete Letters on my Amazon wish-list for a couple of years now.

So when Mum and I had settled down the other evening, intending to watch Ladri di Biciclette, but finding ourselves let down by a dodgy tape, the DVD of Wilde which my sister had left with my parents so I could watch it some time seemed an obvious choice. Time to give my former hero another outing.

I must say that the film itself seems rather a Wildean whitewash. It's basically set as a classic tragedy, with Wilde's Tragic Flaw being his blind love for Bosie, itself exacerbated by society's Tragic Flaw of failing to accommodate homosexuality. This makes for a neat and quite moving morality tale, and both Stephen Fry and Jude Law carry it off very nicely. But while it is all certainly extractable from Ellman's biography (after all, the screenplay is based on it), I don't seem to remember Wilde coming across in the book as quite such a constant model of perfect empathy, humanity and compassion, and I'm certain that he was already entirely capable of neglecting his wife, spending extravagantly and behaving foolishly and dismissively well before Bosie came on the scene: all things which the film quite explicitly blames on his influence.

Nonetheless, it's enjoyable enough, and certainly reminded me that I really do want to read those letters. Seeing it from this stage in my life, I also couldn't help but view his story in terms of Classical parallels. It wouldn't surprise me if he himself saw his accusation and trial as a retreading of Socrates' for corrupting the youth, and certainly now that the original trial transcripts have been uncovered, his 'defence' (essentially, "You're the ones with the problem, not me, and I relish being a martyr to my cause") bears a remarkable similarity to the one Socrates presented, as recorded in Plato's Apology.

And then of course there is Ovid - exiled to the Black Sea by Augustus, partly for writing scandalous poetry, but also for a mysterious error which may well have had a political aspect. And this was brought home to me particularly by a rather loose translation in the film. Wilde explains to Robbie Ross that the title of his letter to Bosie from Reading Gaol, De Profundis, means 'From the Depths'. Really, it doesn't - conventionally 'De' in a Latin title means 'about' or 'concerning', as in Cato's De Agri Cultura, Cicero's De Re Publica or Vitruvius' De Architectura. They all mean 'About' + exactly what it looks like they mean from their modern derivations - so similarly, 'De Profundis' means 'About the Depths'. But if Wilde's letter had been called 'From the Depths', that would have translated as Ex Profundis - and thus of course inexorably have recalled Ovid's poetic collection of exile letters, Ex Ponto (Pontus being the particular area he was sent to). What I don't know is how similar they are in content, since I've only read an abridged version of De Profundis, and snippets of the Ex Ponto. But it would be interesting to know how much, despite avoiding the more obvious potential tribute in the title, Wilde was aiming to cast himself as a modern-day Ovid as much as a modern-day Socrates.

ETA: and browsing idly through Ellman's biography, I now find a) that De Profundis wasn't Wilde's title anyway, but a suggestion from a friend, possibly E.V. Lucas, and b) that it is the opening line of a psalm, so was presumably intended by whoever did suggest it to have Biblical, rather than Classical resonances. Wilde apparently suggested In Carcere et Vinculis ('In Prison and in Chains') instead, which to me recalls the names of martyr churches in Rome such as San Nicola in Carcere and San Pietro in Vinculis, and thus masterfully incorporates both the Biblical and the Classical traditions, while also stressing the idea of his own tragic martyrdom. Still doesn't mean he wasn't thinking of Ovid, though, either when he wrote the letter or later as he wandered Europe in exile.

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
mrkgnao
May. 18th, 2007 10:50 pm (UTC)
Ah, *amused* I was exactly the same. I was madly into him when I was about 15, and coming to terms with my own sexuality and eager to make it something flamboyant and generally worth oppressing - especially since it *was* all a bit shocking in South Shields. It's almost embarrassing to look back on it and remember how genuinely passionate I was about Oscar Wilde and how original and daring it seemed.

The movie, which I've only seen once, does seem quite determined to turn him into a misunderstood victim of Bosie's excesses, which I suppose makes for a nice tragedy but seems wildly simplistic.

Ooh..which reminds me, I saw a book in Waterstones window today called Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders. Honestly, Oscar Wilde is the least convicing investigator I can think of - he'd probably much lounging around in indolence!
strange_complex
May. 18th, 2007 11:08 pm (UTC)
Hee, yes. I think it is one of those obligatory phases proto-Goths go through, especially if they've been experiencing Unnatural Urges. ;-)

Oscar Wilde, detective? Hmm, no, I think you're right. I'm hoping that maybe he's just a bystander, unwittingly dragged into the whole affair, rather than the man left to actually solve the crime. 'Cos I wouldn't trust him not to just go off and write sonnets about it.
megamole
May. 19th, 2007 07:32 am (UTC)
Ah, I've read to the end of the post; was going to point out the Psalm reference, which is the basis for much fine music.

There are particularly fine settings in Latin by Lassus and de Mondonville, and in English ("Out of the deep have I called to Thee, O Lord") by Morley and Tomkins.
strange_complex
May. 19th, 2007 08:29 am (UTC)
Yeah, I can't believe I didn't know about that before. Still, it doesn't really need to change how one reads the letter, given that it wasn't Wilde's title anyway. It only changes my understanding of how his friends were trying to present him.
big_daz
May. 19th, 2007 09:20 am (UTC)
Something related to this which might be of interest:-

A couple of years back, I went down to Bucks to one of our annual family gatherings. Staying in the same B&B was a slighly batty old dearie who lived in the village and was the Avon Lady there- here house had the builders in and she couldn't be bothered with all the mess. THis lady described herself as a Rhodesian- she'd lived there nearly all her life and after her husband died she came back here with virtually nothing to her name to get away from Mugabe (fortunately for her, she was born here, so was still a UK citizen).

Anyroad, we got going on about family history and she said that she'd been a Douglas before she married and that the family were Scottish aristocracy. "As in the Marquis of Queensbury?", I asked. "Yes" she replied. "So you'll be related to Bosie Douglas then?" "Yes- he was my Great Uncle, but we don't talk about him".

And true to her word, she wouldn't talk about him- had no time for him and he was definately the Black Sheep of that family..
strange_complex
May. 19th, 2007 10:05 am (UTC)
She sounds like a real character! I'm not at all surprised that Bosie was 'edited out' of his family's history, though.
poliphilo
May. 19th, 2007 12:48 pm (UTC)
De Profundis is a horriby wingey, self-pitying work in which he compares himself to Christ and complains that it was all Bosie's fault.

I didn't like the movie. Fry is a fine character actor but just not big or charismatic enough to convince as Wilde. Chesterton called Wilde "an Irish swahbuckler" and there was nothing of that in Fry's performance.

The best screen Wilde is- I reckon- the implausibly cast and very manly Peter Finch
strange_complex
May. 19th, 2007 01:06 pm (UTC)
just not big or charismatic enough

Thing is, Fry is very much capable of being both those things, as plenty of his appearances in ABOF&L and Blackadder demonstrate. I'd be inclined to lay the blame more with the director, for apparently not requiring him to bring these qualities to the performance. The swash-buckler clearly just isn't the Wilde this film was seeking to represent.

I haven't seen to Peter Finch version, and I gather it's a very different film - as one made in the early '60s could only be! I guess I will check it out some time, then.

In some ways, it's a pity the trial transcripts were discovered, as of course it now means that no creatively meaningful fictionalisation of the trial scene can ever be written again.
a_d_medievalist
May. 19th, 2007 02:26 pm (UTC)
When I was in Dublin, LDW took me to see the Wilde statue. Gack. Just awful. It reduces Wilde to someone who looks like he's all about predatory sex, rather than the combination of amazing talent and with that he was.
strange_complex
May. 19th, 2007 02:42 pm (UTC)
*Googles*

Yes, that's... odd. I'd not seen it before, and I do like the use of the different coloured marbles (very Classical!). But if they were going to do that, couldn't they have done it for his hair too? Or at least painted it? It makes him look as though he is supposed to be blond.

As for the leer on his face - all I can say is that he never chose to pose like that in any of his photographs, did he? Ergo I guess it's not exactly how he wished to be seen.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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