Friday, 14 October 2011

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray & Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Dorian Gray (2009)

Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray,  is one of those books that is extremely difficult to film.  In many ways a very light book, it also combines some  dark satire with very subtle thoughts on very weighty ideas about morality, decadence, corruption, society, sex, the worship of youth, and the individuality of evil.  So much of the text is internal and so much action occurs offstage that it is one of those books that it so easy to get very wrong indeed.

There have been any number of adaptations over the years, but perhaps the best was the 1945 version from MGM starring Hurd Hatfield.  It's not a perfect version.  There's far too much narration needed to keep up with the exposition and the drama is often bloodless because of the subject.  Dorian Gray is a young man at the peak of his beauty and when a friend paints a full-length portrait of him, the picture takes on the power to absorb all age, corruption and vice that Dorian might suffer so that Dorian always remains young and stainless no matter what horrors he indulges in while his picture grows older and fouler.  What makes the story works is what isn't seen.  First, because decadence unveiled is always tawdry, banal and uninteresting to the onlooker.  Ask any designated driver at a booze up and you'll understand.  It's far better to leave all that to the imagination.  Also, the story is not about Dorian's descent into corruption, but of the flawless mask he presents to the world despite all the evil and destruction he causes around him.  It is the mask that is important, not the vice.

Indeed, Hatfield's performance is mask-like with his carefully controlled expression giving little away.  He's a man who lives in a house as beautiful as a museum and just as uncomfortable and who commutes between gatherings of opulent splendour and dens of utter depravity.  It's a performance that is beautifully complemented by the fragile innocence of Angela Landsbury and George Sanders at his oleaginous best.  It's also telling that the only special effect is both simple and incredibly effective.  The film was shot in that magnificently clean black and white style that MGM excelled at in the 1940s, but when the camera turns on the painted picture, the film turns to full-blown Technicolor.

Not a perfect film, but an excellent embodiment of what Wilde was striving towards.

Dorian Gray, on the other hand, is an utter mess with director Oliver Parker thinking that the book is about a serial killer.  The film is a turgid mish mash of clichés as Parker shoves to timeline of the story around for no good reason.  Instead of beginning as the book and the 1945 film does with the unveiling of the picture, we see Dorian in a preposterous schoolboy getup walking through a London train staion where he is beset by pickpockets, prostitutes, rent boys and pearly kings.  The last one isn't true, but it's the only stereotype left out.  Oh, and we also get absinthe drinking (why?), flogging scars on Dorian (why?) and pointless close ups followed by more pointless close ups that seem to be mandatory.  For Gods sake, man, just show the artist painting and we'll get it.  We don't need an extreme close up of the brush to figure it out!

Worse, Parker is a lazy director, which is not surprising when you see how he butchered The Importance of being Earnest in 2002.  He starts scenes, gets bored with them, and ends them as if they no longer amuse.  He brings in a child abuse subplot that goes nowhere, he inflates and mishandles not one, but two love stories that clunk and clatter to no purpose, and he never develop his characters properly.

Worse, instead of keeping the debauchery in the audience's imagination, Parker jams every drop of blood, every sexual fetish up on the screen that he can get away with and not get an X rating.  It is cynical, nauseating and serves no dramatic purpose.  Even Colin Firth, who must have been blackmailed into doing this abomination, can't save it.

Dorian Gray has a running time of 112 minutes, but it feels more like four hours.  After 45 minutes, the plot begins to drag and by the one hour mark it is torture.  By the point where Parker loses all connection to the novel and turns it into a vampire flick set in the First World War with Dorian dressed as the Shadow, I'd given up on it entirely.  At the climax with Dorian's suffragette girlfriend (cliché overload!) trying to save him from the zombie portrait, I was more interested in whether or not there was any salami left in the fridge.

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