Dorian Gray Review

To make two inadequate Oscar Wilde adaptations may be regarded as a misfortune. To make three looks like carelessness.

It’s hard to tell what Oscar Wilde might have made of this latest adaptation of his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. He would probably have enjoyed the reasonably explicit scenes of lechery and debauchary and he would most certainly have been entranced by the physical charms of the leading actor, the unfeasibly pretty – if undeniably girly – Ben Barnes. But one suspects that Mr Wilde would have been dismayed at the way his novel of ideas has been turned into a rather crass gothic thriller and even more distressed to discover that the good looking Mr Barnes appears to be unable to act.

The story is surely well enough known by now to require little introduction. Young Dorian Gray arrives in Victorian London as an innocent and takes on a lifestyle of increasingly dubious implications. A painter friend, Basil, paints a portrait of him at his most glowingly pure and Dorian places it under lock and key. As Dorian becomes corrupted with age and experience, the picture ages while the subject remains young and handsome.

It’s a wonderful plot line for commenting upon the double standards and dubious morality of late 19th Century England but the actual story of the novel is fairly minimal and acts largely as a frame upon which to hang a variety of ideas and a generous selection of epigrams, most of which come out of the mouth of Dorian’s friend, Lord Henry Wooton. Discovering the slim predictability of the storyline, director Oliver Parker and his screenwriter Toby Finlay find themselves adding action and suspense scenes, some of which work better than others and build up to an utterly ludicrous climax hinging upon the portrait which, inevitably, is nothing like as horrific on screen when finally revealed as it is in print.

It doesn’t help that Ben Barnes is little more than a piece of timber in the central role of Dorian and thus retains little of our interest or sympathy. We’re far more interested in Ben Chaplin’s finely drawn Basil, a portrayal which achieves immense emotional power with a minimum of histrionics. Unfortunately, he disappears after the middle of the film. Equally good is Colin Firth, an actor who gets better and better, as Lord Henry. Unfortunately, he seems to be sidelined for too much of the time and his measure of witty lines is severely diminished from the original novel.

Dorian Gray is undoubtedly a fine looking film with world class cinematography from the great Roger Pratt and some very ingenious production and costume design. But the overall effect is strangely uninvolving and lacks the centre which a more interesting central characterisation might have provided.

Momentum’s Blu-Ray release of Dorian Gray offers a pleasant enough image and some striking sound. The often dark cinematography is served well by this 1080p transfer which has deep blacks and a well defined palate of darker colours. The level of detail does vary wildly throughout the film, sometimes giving a vivid three-dimensionality but often appearing barely more than adequate. It also looks a little too smooth for comfort with apparent traces of excessive DNR – although it’s only fair to point out that Ben Barnes’s face is already a little too waxy for comfort. On the whole, it looks pretty good – the sudden interruptions of violent red are particularly pleasing – but not first class by any means. The lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track is rather more impressive, offering beautifully crisp and clear dialogue and some very effective surround effects which serve to really involve the viewer in the centre of the action. It’s a subtle track which could perhaps make more of the explicitly horrific moments but is never less than interesting and involving.

The extras are reasonable, the best of the bunch being an honest and revealing audio commentary from Parker and Finlay and the worst being a tiresome blooper reel. The menus are simple but suitably atmospheric.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Aug 10, 2010

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