Sandwiched in between the two new St Trinian films, director Oliver Parker’s latest offering, Dorian Gray, acts as a stark contrast to the frivolous 21st century school girl fun of his other recent work.
Dorian Gray tells the story of a handsome young man (the titular Dorian Gray, played by Ben Barnes), who arrives fresh from the country to 19th century London. There he meets Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth), who initiates him into the seedy London underclass and infuses Dorian with rather questionable ideas about the seeking of pleasure at the cost of everything else. When painter Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin) creates a beautiful
portrait which captures his good looks exactly, Lord Henry effectively goads Dorian into selling his soul in return for eternal youth.
As Dorian speaks the words, so the Faustian pact is enacted — instead of aging himself, the picture grows older and maggot-infested (and utters rather strange, zombie-like groans). Freed from inhibitions, Dorian does whatever he desires, whenever he desires it, with somewhat shocking consequences.
Cinematographically, Dorian Gray is all about a dark, Gothic opulence. Rich splendour and a lush, if slightly over-dramatic, score assuage the senses, with a few orgies thrown in for good measure. The director and screenwriter have certainly read between Wilde’s poetical allusions about exactly which hedonistic activities this Dorian has pursued — then again, had Wilde gone into this much detail when writing the book then he would have become even more of an outcast from society than he was.
Rather than pursue the philosophical line of the original, this film concentrates more on the elements of horror that underline the plot. Barnes’ Dorian is cold and calculating when anything threatens his happiness — or rather, his pleasure. Fortunately, Barnes has lost the absurd accent which he affected during his other major film (Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian). Though some may find this Dorian too emotionless, subtle inflections and expressions show that Barnes is more than merely a pretty face. Firth, too, has the opportunity to show that he is capable of playing more than his usual role of affable bachelor, and delivers his dark and hardhearted musings with venom. In fact, Lord Henry’s morally corrupt philosophies and the conviction
with which they are spoken are among the most frightening aspects of the film, far more so than the computer-generated portrait.
Translating an abstract novella was never going to be easy, and Dorian Gray puritans are unlikely to be wholly satisfied by this latest adaptation. But however well-known a book is, we do not go the cinema to be read to, and the film acknowledges this, taking the basic plot of the book and renewing it to make it a good film in its own right, one which is definitely worth seeing.