Wilde (1997)

I have an aversion to reading poetry–I feel my brain can’t quite ever find the right way to read such things to itself, and is more interested in absorbing word and meaning than in carefully constructing anything like meter. I also have an aversion to most literature you are “supposed” to read (dense writing often puts me off, though I have a contradictory affection for The Heart of Darkness and some other titles). I’m known to have no interest in reading plays, either, despite a brief theatrical “career” in high school. I’m more interested in seeing them (or, I guess, performing them) because that’s what they’re (theoretically, at least) for–to be performed. Without writing to describe, it becomes a trial to maintain understanding of characters whose natures are described only by their words. Somehow, despite all this, I took to reading The Picture of Dorian Gray in college, purely of my own volition. I picked a copy up quite cheap and simply decided to read it, knowing the essence of the story for as long as I can remember. As best I can recall, it was the first instance of language itself appealing to me in writing. I’ve not really read anything else of Wilde’s since then, and I guess I can’t easily explain or justify that.

Oscar Wilde (Stephen Fry) is a rather flamboyant Irish writer whose first appearance in this film is regaling a Colorado silver mine’s workers with the tales of an Italian silversmith. He is openly drawn to the young, beautiful and lithe bodies amongst them, but his wit still holds their interest, a testament to his skill with it. He returns to London, though, and marries Constance Lloyd (Jennifer Ehle), the couple quickly birthing two sons, but the young guest Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen) seduces Wilde, pushing him to embrace his homosexual urges. Wilde gives in after minor reluctance and begins to revel in the feelings of freedom that being with another man gives him, the feeling of honesty and revelation. At the opening of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan, though, he runs across the rather angelic Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law), with whom Wilde is immediately smitten. Douglas, whom Wilde calls Bosie, is young, impetuous and arrogant, though, with extreme issues with his abusive father, the Marquess of Queensberry (Tom Wilkinson). Wilde pursues his newfound love endlessly though, often at odds with the advice of his friends and former lovers, leaving his wife and children behind constantly–and finally being charged with “gross indecency” by the enraged Marquess, who wants Bosie to have nothing to do with Wilde.

My father took issue with the “sainted” approach taken by writer Julian Mitchell (who writes a good Wilde) and director Brian Gilbert (who doesn’t seem to leave much of a stamp of himself on the film) in biographizing Wilde himself, which is not an invalid interpretation of the Wilde displayed onscreen. Little is made of any transgressions by Wilde, who is supported by his wife, mother and friends thoroughly, almost a hapless victim of the self-centered Bosie and his oppressive father. But I submit that the intention of this film is to display the tragic nature of Wilde’s life, neither a ranting polemic against homophobia nor an endoresment of homosexuality so much as a display of the loss that can come from the former, letting it be simply an accepted fact in this film world that this was Wilde and this was how he was, and this is what happened because of those who refused to accept it. As such it would have muddled things a bit by showing sidelong failings of Wilde as a person (which are of course inevitable). It is not intended, I feel, as a film to show the viewer the complete picture of Wilde, but to display a witty and erudite man and how the judgment of others could bring him low publicly without truly making a declaration about the quality of his character.

Fry is, as many have said, a perfect Wilde. A wit himself, a student of Wilde’s writing and even physically similar, Fry makes a figure that is easily identified as Wilde. Law is often a bit stolid in performances, but here is quite satisfyingly passionate, and easily believable as the angelic youth that captures the eye and heart of Wilde, being an instrument of Wilde’s public destruction and yet still a character with understandable flaws that cause this.Wilkinson, who I’ve liked for some time, also turns in a performance that was extra-pleasing, pushing himself further into the character than I usually see, hiding behind bushy sideburns and a hateful glare.

Still, there was something mildly unsatisfying in the film for me. The fault, I think, lies mostly in Gilbert’s ho-hum direction, or perhaps in the pacing–it doesn’t feel like a biopic attempting to cram more into its space than it can reasonably hold like some, nor like it omits too much like others. Something just feels a bit tepid about it all, and mostly too episodic. There’s a strong connecting device in the reading of a story about a giant in alternating voices, but it doesn’t manage to connect the scenes between its appearance, though its own readings sort of hold to each other and sandwich the scenes between into place all the same.

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