‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan
Oscar Wilde, poet, dramatist, philosopher, wit and gay martyr, is one of the greatest figures in English literature’s history, and the fact that his work is often still overshadowed by his ‘private’ (a misnomer if ever there was one) life and subsequent imprisonment is a sad reflection of the ongoing prurient interest in anyone who refused to conform to society’s often hypocritical ideals. The previous films of Wilde’s life, starring Peter Finch and Robert Morley, were adequately witty, but were miserably unrevealing, both in terms of sexual frankness or in attempting to look beyond the colourful exterior of Wilde as a great wit; despite being filmed at the start of the 1960s, when Wilde was no longer seen as a pariah, there was still a disturbingly trivial attitude towards his life and work. Brian Gilbert’s film- which, as someone points out in one of the documentaries on the disc- represents the first serious attempt since then to paint a picture of Wilde’s life, metaphorical warts and all. Although the filmmakers’ approach only goes so far, the film succeeds very well on the levels that it functions on.
Opening strikingly, if ultimately redundantly, in the style of a 1950s Technicolor Western, the audience is introduced to Wilde (Fry) not in some decadent salon quoting epigrams, but entering an American mining town while on his lecturing tour of the US. The inference is clear; Wilde was not merely a stuffed shirt dandy, but a genuinely vibrant figure who was prepared to defy the acceptable norms of society, both in his work and his life. The early parts of the film follow the well-known highlights of his existence; his meeting with Constance (Ehle) and their subsequent marriage, his first homosexual experiences with Robbie Ross (Sheen), his meeting with Bosie Douglas (Law), and, of course, his substantial literary successes, which are unfortunately rather played down here. However, the more infamous parts of his meetings with rent boys in picturesque vice dens and, ultimately, his confrontations with Bosie’s father, the ravingly insane Marquis of Queensberry (Wilkinson) are also documented faithfully, even down to his eventual, hubris-driven attempt to sue Queensberry for libel, on Bosie’s advice of course.
The difficulty that arises with attempting to review Wilde is where one stops reviewing his biographical life and events, and attempts to comment on the film itself. As a depiction of the key events of Wilde’s life, this works extremely well, in a calmly unspectacular way; the film manages skilfully to contrast the beauty of Wilde’s surroundings with the sordid nature of his assignations- for those of a homophobic disposition, the film contains some fairly graphic sex scenes- and Julian Mitchell’s witty and intelligent script manages to succeed both as a faithful adaptation of Richard Ellmann’s biography and as a mildly symbolic account of how society attempts to destroy its artists.
An effective motif used throughout is Wilde’s account of The Selfish Giant, which contrasts his genuine love for his sons with his unhappy knowledge that his every action betrays and incriminates them; had this been done in a more heavy-handed way, it might have become irritating, but it is done with enough lightness to mean that it instead complements the quasi-tragic story of Wilde’s downfall extremely well. It’s also a credit to Mitchell and Gilbert that the film is studded with effective, amusing scenes that never feel over-staged or descend to the usual biopic cliches of ‘Mr Wilde, meet Mr Dowson’. Perhaps surprisingly, the best scene in the film is a hilarious meeting between Wilde and Queensberry in the Café Royale; the joy of watching Fry and Wilkinson strike sparks off one another is immense, but it also contains a remarkably telling moment, when Wilde remarks that he and Queensberry are both men who have defied society and convention. This is certainly true, as far as it goes; the difference between the two, of course, was that Queensberry was eventually able to play the part of the wronged father and see Wilde prosecuted, whereas Wilde was permanently doomed to play the decadent seducer of young boys. C’est la vie.
However, a frustrating aspect of the film is that, like Gilbert’s film about TS Eliot and Vivienne Haigh Wood, Tom and Viv, it often fails to draw the wider parallels that the subject needs, not only in simple terms of connecting Wilde to the decadent poets and artists of the end of the 19th century- if the film is to be believed, the only other people who shared Wilde’s views were pale young Oxford students in cravats- but also in assessing the wider perspective of his achievements. Mitchell mentions on one of the documentaries that the film was once planned to open with a scene featuring Wilde in the present day; such an innovation might have been an excellent idea, as it would have knocked the idea of the film as a stuffy costume drama for six from the outset. Likewise, the film soft-pedals his greatest achievement, his literary genius; the success of his plays is shown briefly, but his greatest writing, such as his essays ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ and his brilliant ‘J’accuse’ to Bosie, De Profundis are all but ignored. The rather forced attempt at a happy ending also jars, despite a title card contradicting it immediately afterwards. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect a 2-hour, relatively mainstream film to concentrate on every detail of his life, of course, and it is to Columbia’s great credit that the supplementary material on the DVD manages to paint a far more complete picture of his life and times than the film alone allows.
The film would succeed or fail on the strength of the cast, unsurprisingly, and it comes as a relief that the actors are all superb. Fry is utterly magnificent as Wilde; as you’d expect, he does a fine job of portraying him as the aesthetic wit of his early days, but he also brings a great pathos and poignancy to the role, managing to convey a sense of regret that he has lost his beloved wife and children through his actions, even before his arrest and imprisonment. It’s a great shame that this role didn’t elevate him into the mainstream in the same way that, say, Richard III raised Ian McKellen’s profile; of course, the fact that he’s always been regarded as a light comic actor could hardly have helped, despite his obvious range and talent.
It is to the rest of the cast’s credit that they manage to give splendid performances despite the sheer powerhouse of Fry-as-Wilde; Law is about as close to a definition of the Platonic idea of ‘the beautiful golden-haired boy’ as can be imagined, even as he makes Bosie suitably loathsome. Ehle conveys Constance’s gradual slide from cheerful faith in Wilde’s ability to painful disillusion very movingly, Sheen is suitably multi-faceted as Ross, one of Wilde’s few true friends and supporters, and Vanessa Redgrave is fiery as Speranza Wilde, his mother, even if her accent occasionally makes her sound like Mrs Doyle from Father Ted. The show is very almost stolen by Wilkinson as Queensberry, who manages the difficult task of making him hilarious and terrifying at the same time; when he asks Wilde, in stentorian tones, what his views on cremation are, it’s hard to avoid laughing, but he also conveys the sense of a genuinely unpleasant and vindictive figure superbly. Technical credits are also strong, with Debbie Wiseman’s score lending the film a suitable sense of impending tragedy.
The film might have been made with an eye to the heritage films market, but the sexual frankness and depiction of a rather seamier side of Victorian England meant that box office returns were limited. However, this is easily the best film made about Oscar Wilde to date, and comes about as close to being definitive as might be expected; despite its refusal to look at the bigger picture from time to time, it still captures what it must have been like to have been a figure of Wilde’s standing and intellect in his age, even as he was brought down by the hypocrisy of those he was surrounded by. For comparison’s sake, the film of From Hell has some interesting points of overlap, despite being about a completely different character; a double bill of the two might be a good idea for all those interested in the days when Britain may have been Great, but certainly wasn’t tolerant. Strongly recommended.
Columbia have done a mixed job with the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer here. Early scenes look horribly grainy, with some obvious print damage and very muted colours; fortunately, this soon passes, and most of the film’s picture quality is quite pleasing, if not as exceptional as one might hope for a comparatively recent film. It seems rather absurd to think of ‘restoration’ for a film being made in 1997; all the same, this is not up to some other transfers for films of the same period.
A Dolby Surround track is provided, which is fine as far as it goes, but really doesn’t begin to make any noticeable use of the surround effects; dialogue and music are presented cleanly and crisply, but nothing more exciting than that.
Here is where the disc really comes into its own, fully justifying its tag as a ‘special edition’. Although the extra features are unlikely to appeal to a great many people- the temptation is to assume that literature buffs and DVD fanatics are normally two different sets of people, with some honourable exceptions- they are of superbly high quality, and genuinely add to a viewer’s appreciation of both the film and of Wilde’s work. The first extra is the commentary, featuring Gilbert, Mitchell, Fry and the producer, Marc Samuelson. The commentary is unlikely to appeal to those who are after gossip and discussions of the film’s artistic merit; instead, it concentrates almost entirely on the artistic choices made to dramatise Wilde’s life, the accuracy of the various locations used, Wilde’s own career and- oh yes- his wider sphere of influence in literature at the time and since. It’s a genuinely worthwhile discussion of the film and its themes, and highly enjoyable for any student of Wilde’s work; the only thing that stops it from being a great DVD commentary track is that there’s comparatively little actually said about the film itself, which may put some people off.
However, this is rectified by two documentaries, the 1997 ‘featurette’ ‘Simply Wilde’ and the new documentary ‘Still Wilde about Wilde’ (and, yes, one has to wonder who got paid to dream up such painful puns). The contemporary piece lasts about 25 minutes, and feels like a South Bank special on Wilde, concentrating again on his life and work rather than the film, which is referred to more in terms of a homage to Oscar rather than a work of art in its own right, perhaps justifiably. However, the contemporary documentary is excellent in every respect, running for 55 minutes or so and covering virtually every topic imaginable, from Gilbert’s initial interest in Ellmann’s biography to the film’s website and even the DVD release, complete with Fry merrily discussing his own interest in the DVD format and his pleasure that the film was being given such a strong set of extras, justifiably. If one was being cynical, one might point out that these features preach to the converted- to be honest, a casual viewer of the film is unlikely to want to watch what is, effectively, a 90-minute documentary about Wilde himself and the film as well as the commentary- but there’s remarkably little overlap of information.
Other extras are more ephemeral and conventional; there’s a ‘photo montage’ of behind-the-scenes photos and film stills, accompanied by the film’s score, a rather heavy-handed trailer and some cast and crew biographies. The only obvious omission is any of the deleted scenes referred to on the commentary track; however, those who are desperate to learn yet more about Wilde’s era and environment should take the opportunity to further their knowledge by reading Ellmann’s biography immediately.
At this point, I must declare a tenuous interest in the film; while it was still being made, the organiser of the Salisbury Festival decided it would be a bright idea to invite Gilbert, Mitchell, Fry and Samuelson to discuss their work-in-progress. Given my lifelong interest in Wilde’s work and life, I attended, was extremely impressed by their obvious passion for Wilde and their intentions for the film, and hoped that the final product would live up to their expectations for it. Thankfully, it did, even if the film is ultimately ‘very good’ rather than great. Columbia’s DVD is released with unexciting picture and sound quality, but is redeemed by some excellent, intelligently produced and intellectually satisfying supplementary features. Strongly recommended.