Saturday, September 26, 2009

The very trite and vulgar picture of 'Dorian Gray'

A very brief and partial review. I did not, could not, sit through the entirety of the latest film version of Dorian Gray. Everything that could go wrong with such an adaptation did go wrong. Unbelievably, the makers have taken an already camp and melodramatic novel and turned it into an absurdly overblown bit of kitsch. They dispensed with most of Wilde's deathless aphorisms, stripped away vital scenes of dialogue, threw in unwieldy scenes that weren't in the original, including a backstory of abuse suffered by Gray that doesn't really seem necessary, degraded some of the already paper-thin characters so that they may as well have been played by mops with papier mache faces stuck on, sucked all the sexual tension from the relationship between Basil Hallward and Gray, and made the terror in the novel's later passages feel contrived. Ben Chaplin, as Hallward, doesn't seem so much enthralled with Gray as irked by him. The gory murder advertised from the first scene in the film feels so trivial that it reminds one of Wilde's quip that "One would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of little Nell". They have also thrown in some soft porn to make it a bit edgier, but to my mind that is far less sexy than suggestion and well-conceived innuendo.

In fact, the film makers seem to have been unsure as to how much to rely on suggestion. They decided, for example, that the original corruption of Dorian's boyish soul should be symbolised by him accepting a cigarette from Lord Henry Wotton. It is known that in Wilde's circles, the young 'Uranians' that he used to have it off with, the sharing of opium-tipped cigarettes was a preferred oral pleasure. And it is known that Wilde presented his young lovers with cigarette cases, as Wotton significantly does to Dorian in this film. But it still feels like a rather tame and tenuous symbol of sensual indulgence, particularly when the following scenes have the pair visiting an opium den and being descended upon by unrealistically glamorous prostitutes. The worst aspects of the novel, meanwhile, are preserved. Wilde's depiction of women, for example, is often deeply misogynistic, despite his feminist politics. The film does not make these shrill caricatures any more interesting.

The casting doesn't work either. Whoever the fuck this Ben Barnes is, he isn't Dorian. If anything, he is utterly nondescript, by no means the unconsciously beautiful ingenue that he is supposed to be channelling. Perhaps he missed his calling as a backing singer for a boy band, or as an ornate ironing board. Colin Firth looks as fat and slimy as a slug in his role as Lord Henry Wotton, not at all the dangerous and seductive quasi-Nietzschean mentor that he is striving to emulate. "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it," he intones. "Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself." This should be a memorable and subtle moment, but he just sounds like a bloated old lech trying to get his end away.

It is important to say that The Picture of Dorian Gray is, in its way, a deeply moralistic affair. Arthur Conan Doyle understood this much, and defended it from the philistines of the age who decried it as 'decadent'. Wilde may have wished to be Dorian "in another age, perhaps", but the novel clearly reviles his behaviour. This is perhaps a strange thing to say about a novel which opens with a series of epigrams that warn the reader not to expect an 'ethical sympathy' on the part of the artist, and which insist that "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all." But then, for Wilde, concepts such as 'evil' and 'ugly' were almost interchangeable. The most damning indictment that Wilde could offer of anything was that it was "vulgar". It is not an accident that Dorian's evil expresses itself as the corruption of a beautiful work of art. In The Critic as Artist, Gilbert vocalises Wilde's contempt for England's vulgar intellectual culture by remarking that "There is no sin except stupidity". And nor was this a "sin" he looked upon lightly. While in Reading Gaol, Wilde responded to a query about the obscenely popular trash writer Marie Corelli by saying, not entirely in jest, that "from the way she writes, she ought to be in here". I know he would have recommended a similar punishment for the makers of Dorian Gray. Still, this humungous slice of cheese will probably become a cult classic one day, alongside Showgirls, just as Corelli's sentimental drivel enjoyed a subterranean audience in gay London for its sheer camp flamboyance. But goddamit, if you really must, hold back until the box office closes.