Dorian Grey (2009)

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Charles Webb
Dorian Grey (2010)
Director: Oliver Parker
Writer: Oscar Wilde (novel), Tom Finlay
Starring: Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Rebecca Hall, a howling portrait
Release Date: September 9, 2009

Charles Rating:

Jason’s Rating:

Jason Sacks and I took a little bit to chat about the most recent adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel, here simply re-titled “Dorian Grey.” I also have a review of the Blu Ray over at Twitch if you’re interested in checking that out.


Charles Webb: So... what did you think of Dorian Grey?

Jason Sacks: It was one of those movies I watch with my finger pressed on the fast-forward button, ready to hit 1.5x speed when it got slow - and it often got slow. I was frustrated that so much of the time the filmmakers thought they were being moody but just were frankly boring me.

Charles Webb: Weird, right? It felt very stodgy and dry for a movie ostensibly about a guy getting eternal life and cutting loose.

Jason Sacks: Definitely. I was really struck by this the first time Dorian seduces a woman, and the scenes just didn't have any sort of erotic charge to them despite the nudity.

Charles Webb: I think a major part of that can be laid at the feet of star Ben Barnes, who struggles with what could have been a really meaty role. In fact, almost across the board the performances are flat to outright awful.

Jason Sacks: Ben Barnes. So beautiful and so lacking in charisma.

Charles Webb: You could say that about most of the movie. Pretty well to impressively put together, but lacking in anything that could draw you in.
That is, except for Colin Firth who sort of seems to be digging his role as the libertine Lord Henry Wotton. While everyone else sleepwalks through their performances, Firth gets all the best Wilde-ian lines (which on occasion feel like they come out of left field, but any surprise was welcome with this movie)

Jason Sacks: I agree - the only parts of this film I really enjoyed were when Firth was on the screen. His adventurism was plain fun to watch. It was easy to see why Dorian might have been sucked into Firth's orbit as the life that he lived and represented seemed so emotionally different from the cloistered world in which Dorian lived.

And as you said, he was the only character who really seemed to be speaking lines from Oscar Wilde books while everyone else just felt very stiff and Victorian. No wonder the character felt so compelling.
Firth's Henry Wotton was an interesting contrast from Ben Chaplin who played Dorian's semi-mentor Basil and who never seemed like anything but a cipher to me.

Charles Webb: I was okay with Chaplin - he just kind of wandered out of the movie so when he stumbles back into it later his fate lacks impact.

It's a funny thing, adapting a work like The Picture of Dorian Grey to the screen, particularly given that it's about a person living amorally - in Victorian terms. I suspect the movie would have benefited either from rethinking how to approach an adaptation of the material or chucking fidelity and remixing it somehow (setting it in the present, perhaps).

Jason Sacks: The weakest part of the movie to me was the part where they do chuck fidelity and remix it by adding a whole long third act that's kind of vaguely set during World War I. There was so much that could have been done with peoples' reactions to Dorian, and I suspect that's the reason that that section was added. After all, I'm sure they thought, it would be effective to see [SPOLERS for those who don't know the book] still-young Dorian next to his then-old friends.

But that aspect of the plot is only loosely alluded to, and it robs that section of the movie of so many interesting-seeming plot threads.

Charles Webb: Yeah, you know how weird it was for Dorian to show up at the big get together with his friends 25 years later and no one's reaction moves beyond, "Hey, you look good!" In fact, without the really bad old age make up on the background cast, I would have been hard-pressed to tell how much time had elapsed.

On top of which, Barnes' world-weary, jaded Dorian just comes across as sleepy in these scenes.

Jason Sacks: Yeah, it just shows how much of a black hole was at the center of the movie, you know? Barnes has no idea of how to convey subtle emotions, while the filmmakers for whatever reason seemed to almost want to keep the core idea of the plot - which is so interesting it's become a classic, after all - at arms' length.

The whole ludicrous romance in that section so badly misses the point on nearly every level that it was painful.

I didn't believe for a second in the interesting contradiction that the writers wanted me to believe - that Dorian had changed on one level by life but his exterior hadn't changed. It could have been an interesting idea, but Barnes' acting and the poor writing just didn't deliver that idea at all.

Charles Webb: Part of this stems from showing his life of debauchery and excess in montage (gnarly slo-mo montage, at that). It was a case of trying to hit the beats of the story while not bothering to elaborate on the lives of the characters.

By reducing the story to plot points, to moments, it robs the plot and Dorian's journey of its meaning.
In fact, the whole second act both dragged and felt rushed.

Jason Sacks: We never get inside Dorian's head. He seems like just a very impulsive and beautiful child - albeit a child who has some pretty wild sex.

Charles Webb: Eh, even the sex in the movie felt kind of like something no one really wanted to commit to. I may have, at some point in the production seen a a nipple, but there was nothing titilatting or trangsressive.

Jason Sacks: "Dragged and felt rushed." I just never got into the rhythm of the movie. It seemed to enjoy spending lots of time on the blue screen shots of Victorian London but much less time on the scenes that actually would have illuminated character.
There were some small allusions to transgressive sex, but the filmmakers kept veering away from it. Not that I was hoping for a Skinamax film, but since one of the key points of the plot is Dorian's debauchery, it seemed bizarre to not dwell on that aspect.

Charles Webb: Also, why just sex? If he's someone who's experiencing everything, why not go completel crazy with it. I'm talking about a Deer Hunter-style scene with him playing Russian roulette, or fighting bears in the forest. Bare-handed.
That's how I'd roll if I had immortality.

Jason Sacks: Hell yeah.
Why not be a big man if you're gonna live forever?

Charles Webb: I think that's the core problem with the movie - beyond the acting, beyond the pacing, the movie wasn't fun, it never reveled (which is somehting I think the story needed to live)

Jason Sacks: I actually started thinking of Wolverine as I was watching this movie and thinking about how much I wished someone like Hugh Jackman had been in the lead role. For all his faults in the Wolverine movie, I would have bought him as an immortal libertine.
And damn it, he would have made the role more fun!

Charles Webb: I do think there's room in this world for another Dorian Grey movie - it's disappointing that this isn't the one.
Interestingly, this isn't the director's (Oliver Parker) first time at the Wilde well. He also directed the film version of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest – this one also has Firth.

Jason Sacks: Have you seen them?

Charles Webb: Nope. But I haven't heard many good things about The Importance of Being Earnest.

Charles Webb: Still, you would think that someone who keeps going back to the same source might have either affinity or passion for the work.

Jason Sacks: Yeah, this is one of those puzzling movies where the creator seems to be really excited by the material but doesn't know how to translate it well to the screen.
I don't think it's just the weakness of the lead actor; more than anything else, the problem seems to be the listlessness and lack of focus for the plot.

Charles Webb: So what would you give Dorian Grey?

Jason Sacks: 1.5 out of 5. A few scattered moments of interest, but nothing more.

Charles Webb: Wow. I'm going to go a little bit higher at a 2 out of 5 but only because it wasn't mind-scarringly awful. But just barely.

Jason Sacks: Still, neither of us will be seeking out any of Parker's other Wilde films.

Charles Webb: I can make no promises. I kind of still want to see An Ideal Husband.

Jason Sacks: You're a braver man than I am.

Charles Webb: Ha!

You can find the trailer here:

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of Charles Webb's work at his blog Monster In Your Veins.

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