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13. Dorian Gray (2009), dir. Oliver Parker

Seen at the Cottage Road cinema with ms_siobhan

I must admit that I went to see this with a kind of train-wreck mentality. From what I'd seen on trailers and posters, it looked destined to be pretty awful - a CGI-heavy Gothic horror fest with little subtlety and no resemblance to the book beyond the title. I was braced for something which was to Wilde's Dorian Gray as the film Van Helsing was to Stoker's Dracula. But I went all the same, because somehow I just couldn't resist seeing for myself how bad it was going to be.

And in that I was sorely disappointed. It isn't perfect by any means - ms_siobhan and I agreed on the way home that there were points at which they had gone slightly overboard with the CGI, especially in the final scenes. But it was a lot better than I had been expecting. It had subtlety and structure and clever thematic allusions, and succeeded in bringing out the essential character of Wilde's book while at the same time bringing its own contributions to the table. In short, I think it has been mis-marketed, and actually if you like Wilde's novel and like dark and grungy modern visions of Victorian depravity (think Sweeney Todd), you will probably like this.

There are obviously a few divergences from the novel. One is that Dorian is portrayed as a lot more innocent and sweet-natured at the beginning of the film than Wilde allows in the novel, where he is already quite spoilt and petulant when Henry Wotton first meets him. But I liked that - it made the changes which he underwent over the course of the film more striking, and his too-little-too-late desire to redeem himself and become good at the end more plausible. I was less convinced by the back-story about his grandfather beating him in the attic, though, which didn't really seem to me to add anything much, and indeed seemed a distraction from the horrors surrounding the painting.

Another change was the introduction of a new character at the end: Emily Wotton, Lord Henry's (or 'Harry', as he is mainly referred to here) daughter. Again, though, I thought she was a very useful addition. For one thing, she fits in nicely with a number of devices used towards the end of the film to indicate how much the world has changed over the course of 20 years, while Dorian remains the same - along with cars, telephones, conscription posters and the new fashions of the First World War era. One minute her father declines Dorian's invitation to travel the world with him because of her impending birth; the next she is a fully-grown young woman who appears the same age as Dorian, but unlike his previous passions is self-confident and independent in a way he simply isn't prepared for. She speaks of women being given the vote; he drawls out some vacuous line about how women shouldn't be given anything they can't wear out in the evening - and is pulled up short when she doesn't respond with tinkling feminine laughter and a comment about how very witty he is.

Yet she finds him challenging and intriguing, while he has become weary of empty pleasures and is drawn to her strength and integrity - and so they fall in love. Which is great, because it helps to throw Dorian's own lifestyle into sharp relief for him, and to show him what he has lost by making himself into the kind of person he cannot trust with such a woman's happiness. It also means that Lord Henry, who believes that Dorian is about to use, discard and ruin his daughter as he once encouraged him to do to so many others, sees for himself the consequences of the monster he has created - something which is there in the novel but not rendered as vividly. So that was all good.

And, as I said above, it was thematically very clever. There are nice touches like Dorian seeing Sibyl Vane for the first time in the role of Ophelia (rather than Juliet as in the novel), which is later echoed in horrible fashion when she drowns herself in the Thames (as opposed to swallowing acid as in the original). This isn't just aesthetically pretty - it also hints at the horrible consequences of blurring the distinction between art and reality. Of course, the whole story revolves around a painting, so the theme of images and gazes is right there for the taking, and they really went to town with it. There are countless uses of mirrors, photographs and auditoria, all hinting at questions about who is looking at whom, who has the power in that exchange, and how image relates to reality. We get things like Dorian stabbing Basil to death with a shard of broken mirror (rather than a knife), reminding us of the warped reflection of Dorian that is the actual painting. Or Henry Wotton in the upper gallery of Sibyl Vane's theatre, watching Dorian reject her with the obvious, vicarious enjoyment of a man who has engineered this entire scene for his own pleasure. Indeed, even the picture itself gazes out of its frame, as we gaze with it via a grainy texture and heightened contrast, which helps to create a sense of its malevolent presence, and the way that it has taken on some vital, human essence of Dorian's.

There's a lot there, then - more, in fact, than I'd intended to write when I sat down to do this review! It's just a pity that Parker occasionally let himself get just a little carried away with the CGI effects - particularly when 95% of the way the always-tricky issue of whether or how to show the picture itself was actually handled quite cleverly and subtly, and it was only that rogue 5% that over-egged the pudding. With only a very little editing to trim out the worst excesses, it would be a really brilliant film - and as it is, I'm glad I saw it.

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( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 14th, 2009 10:10 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed it - even if bits of it were a bit too gaspy soundtrack wise and it would have been so much better if they'd stuck with the subtle nicely sinister approach as opposed to the giant horror sledgehammer in places.

I must re-read the book now.
Sep. 14th, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
I must re-read the book now.

Yes, I was thinking that. I had a good browse through it when I got home to re-appraise myself of the major plot points, but I found myself thinking it deserved more than that.
Sep. 15th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)
Oh that does sound much better than I feared! I'm much more tempted to go see it now :)
Sep. 15th, 2009 05:00 pm (UTC)
Yes, do - I think it will appeal! I'm glad I made the effort, rather than letting the posters put me off.
Sep. 15th, 2009 07:54 pm (UTC)
Have you read Will Self's version of the novel?

Sep. 15th, 2009 09:20 pm (UTC)
Gosh, no - didn't know he'd written one. Would you recommend it?

PS - hi Jane!
Sep. 15th, 2009 10:02 pm (UTC)
I'm currently reading the book and seeing the fikm on Friday.
Sep. 16th, 2009 08:23 am (UTC)
Cool - I hope you enjoy it!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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