Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: biopics / In category: 6 of 10 / Overall: 83 of 100

Brian Gilbert’s handsomely produced biopic of poet, novelist, playwright, wit, raconteur and all-round genius Oscar Wilde has a lot going for it. The period recreation is convincing without ever suffocating the viewer in the manner of, say, a BBC Sunday night costume drama. The script, by Julian Mitchell from Richard Ellman’s biography, is literate and witty. The performances are excellent across the board, with Stephen Fry perfectly cast in the title role. If anyone deserves the sobriquet “an Oscar Wilde for our times”, it is probably Stephen Fry.

With one caveat (and it’s an unfortunately significant one), I enjoyed ‘Wilde’ very much. And yet it falls prey to the inherent problem of virtually all biopics: it is, by its very nature, episodic. Opening in 1882 with Wilde fetching up in Colorado as part of his grand tour (Gilbert plays the opening credits sequence, in terms of its imagery and music, like a western), the film then packs the incidents of almost two decades into less than two hours.

Thus, in short order, Wilde returns to Britain, marries Constance Lloyd (Jennifer Ehle), makes his mark in society, fathers two children, meets Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen), has his first homosexual experience, writes ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, enjoys huge success with ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, meets Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Jude Law) and the two of them embark on a rocky and ultimately destructive relationship.

This is the point at which the film’s pace slows and, for a while, it becomes something of a two-hander, scene after scene depicting Wilde’s almost hopeless infatuation in the face of Bosie’s increasingly callous and selfish behaviour. Their relationship is tempestuous (seriously, these guys were more on-off than Marilyn Manson and Evan Rachel Wood) and Bosie’s mood swings are exacerbated by the influence of his father, the Marquess of Queensbury (Tom Wilkinson), a bullish no-son-of-mine type who decries Wilde as a pervert.

When Bosie’s brother (also gay) commits suicide rather than face his father’s wrath, Bosie seizes the opportunity of the Marquess making defamatory comments about Wilde in writing to convince Wilde to launch a libel action. Ross begs him not to but Wilde, committed to stand up against the hypocrisies of society, goes ahead. Minor problem: the defamatory comment in question (“posing sodomite”) is, although hateful, not without basis in fact. Therefore Wilde is forced to perjure himself. With the defence ready to call rent boys with whom Wilde had dallied, Wilde drops the prosecution against Queensbury, leaving himself (a) bankrupt after being obliged to settle the defendant’s legal fees and (b) facing charges from the Crown of gross indecency.

The sheer god-awfulness of British society’s attitudes to homosexuality at that time (and, from the experience of some of my gay friends, it seems to be an inculcated prejudice that’s still a long way from being eradicated) are effectively highlighted. Fry’s performance is exemplary, infusing Wilde with a dignity and a vulnerability beneath the flamboyance and flippant witticisms.

A basic knowledge of Oscar Wilde’s life and work, while not essential to an appreciation of Gilbert’s film, helps contextualise the references and quotes as well as clarifying the chronology. Although I’m confused as to when the film actually ends. The final scenes (SPOILER ALERT) are of Wilde visiting Constance’s grave; Wilde reminiscing with Ross; and Wilde, having travelled abroad, reuniting (albeit briefly) with Bosie. Yet Wilde and Bosie’s final period of time together was in 1897 whereas Constance died in 1898. An earlier scene has Constance visit Wilde in gaol (old spelling used by way of homage to his epic poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ – my favourite work by Oscar Wilde) and assure him she won’t divorce him and that he can return to his family as long as he never sees Bosie again. Later, Wilde tells Ross that now he’s lost his wife and is disallowed to see his children, he may as well see Bosie again. (SPOILERS END)

It grates that the filmmakers, after demonstrating so much commitment to their subject, blithely fuck with historical accuracy for no other reason I can discern than creating a Hollywood-style “happy” ending with Wilde and Bosie locked in each other’s embrace. Oscar Wilde was a literary genius, but like anyone of great creative capacity he was a flawed and deeply complex individual. ‘Wilde’ is almost a great movie, but misses out on greatness because, in the final analysis, it avoids its subject’s complexities and tries to iron out the flaws by sanctifying him.


Bryce Wilson said...

The ideal Wilde biopic would be a two hour version of this:


Neil Fulwood said...

"Your majesty is like a dose of the clap. One of Shaw's."

"You bastards!"