Young and impressionable heir Dorian Gray (Barnes) returns to London and the large, mouldering house and fortune he has inherited. Instantly befriended by the older, decadent and wicked Lord Henry Wootton (Firth) and his artist friend Basil Hallward (Chaplin), he is soon plunged into a world of heavy drinking, opium taking, casual sex and orgies. Dorian makes an accidental Faustian pact to never grow old whilst always indulging in life’s pleasures, a deal captured in Hallward’s painting of him. But as Dorian enjoys the hedonistic pleasures of London and remains fresh faced and handsome, the portrait begins to decay, reflecting his moral rot and people start asking questions.
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Playwright Oscar Wilde’s only novel (and the one that was famously used as evidence of his homosexuality during his libel trial in 19th century) is dusted off for an umpteenth retelling, this time aimed squarely at a 21st century, hardcore nightclubbing audience of twenty-somethings.
Even though the film is now shorn of its full title to focus attention firmly on the lead character, this only spotlights the awkwardness of playing him for the chosen actor. Dorian’s heart-stopping good looks, described in deliberate contrast to his empty, fun-loving character have seen good looking if rather vacuous artists fill his designer shoes. Narnia’s Barnes, who plays Dorian with all the expected conviction of a blindfolded catwalk model on rollerskates, therefore never once disappoints.
This serves the film well in other regards, as the better role of Lord Wootton, here played with lip-smacking persuasiveness by an oily Firth, is brought wittily alive. Firth has been stuck in period drama heroics for so long (his little sister from TV’s Pride and Prejudice, Fox, even plays his wife here) that it is a completely guilty pleasure to see him exercising his villainous muscles and helps bring the scripts cutting witticisms to delicious delight.
Writer Finlay has scribbled a gamier, licentious version than any other, with a heavy emphasis on class A substances, binge drinking and hetero and homo-sex (the latter never being more than a subtle whisper in Wilde’s writing, for obvious reasons) but still manages, as movie mogul Sam Goldwyn once cleverly put it, to “bring it bang up to date with some snappy 19th Century dialogue”. There is still a musty, old fashioned feel to the drama despite the modernisms.
Parker, a bit of a Wilde cinema expert after writing and directing acclaimed star-heavy versions of The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, is here reduced to the director’s chair only and it’s interesting to ponder how much swifter, smarter and more stunning this piece of fluff might have been if it had been more of a one man band. But what we are left with is a pretty, funny and engaging ornament that still manages to cast a certain spell, rather like the lead character himself.