Dorian Gray (2009)

Starring: Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Rebecca Hall, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Ben Chaplin, Emilia Fox, Fiona Shaw, Maryam d'Abo

Directed by: Oliver Parker

Rating: 1 2 3 4

'Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.'
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

First things first: here be spoilers, because this review assumes you're familiar with Oscar Wilde's slender turn-of-the-century classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In fact, if you haven't read it, I suggest you go and do so straightaway. It's very short – a lot shorter than this film in fact. I've seen many films of books that have cut material left right and centre, but few that have had to shoehorn in fifteen extra chapters to reach a decent running time.

Colin Firth as Lord Henry Wotton and Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray

Second things second: despite its macabre premise, The Picture of Dorian Gray is not a horror novel (or not in the Mary Shelley/Stephen King sense of the word anyway). It's an aesthetic manifesto, in which art is imbued with more life than reality, reflecting the truth concealed by false appearances, literally holding a mirror up to the soul. 'The artist is the creator of beautiful things,' Wilde opines. 'All art is quite useless…'

Yada yada yada. Unsurprisingly, this adaptation eschews Wildean philosophising in favour of Anne Rice-style gothic melodrama – all dark shadows, flouncy Byronic shirts and gratuitous nipple shots. Yet the film makes clear that Dorian himself is also a creation, a work of art (certainly a piece of work at any rate). A naïve country boy when he comes to town, he is moulded into a louche, heartless socialite by his Svengalian mentor, Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth), a posturing dandy who preaches a life of sensory self-indulgence from within the safe confines of a society marriage, and who takes cynical amusement in vicariously living a life of decadant pleasure through his young protégé.

Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray with his portrait

Under Wotton's cynical tutorage, Dorian becomes so intoxicated by his own youth and beauty that he's prepared to sell his soul to preserve it.  And, by some mysterious, thankfully unexplained alchemy, this is exactly what happens: his portrait coming to bear the physical scars of his increasingly depraved lifestyle, leaving our hero free to abandon himself to a life of debauchery. (This mainly seems to involve a lot of sex and drugs, which is perhaps why, by the end of the film, his portrait – never as horrible as you imagine it to be – ends up looking like a snuggle-toothed Keith Richards...)

Sure, Dorian Gray has its flaws: CGI wizardry means that the portrait is just a bit too alive at times (at one point I'm sure I saw it burp, which rather killed the mood) but it's also wildly enjoyable. The sets are grimy aul' Jack the Ripper London seen through the twisted lens of Tim Burton (think pea soup fog curling through the streets of Halloween town), the costumes lavish and sexy, while Prince Caspian's Ben Barnes is perfectly cast as our effete yet deadly hero (it's probably wrong to find him irresistibly gorgeous, but there you go). And it has to be said, as we pluck, preen and slice ourselves raw in the quest for eternal youth, the 'it's what's inside that counts' moral could not be more pertinent…

However, the grandiose, special effect ridden, Grand Guignol ending is a bit unconvincing and disappointing , flying in the face of the neat simplicity of Wilde's denouement, so I'll finish up with that, and I dare you to read it without the hairs on your neck standing on end:

'When they [the servants] entered they found, hanging upon the wall, a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognised who it was.'

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