© 2007 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.

      With apologies to Stephen Sondheim, it seemed that in the late 1990s
everything was coming up Wilde. Oscar Wilde, that is. 1995 marked the
centennial of his trial for "gross indecency", and there was seemingly a steady
stream of books, plays (the Off-Broadway hit
Gross Indecency: The Three
Trials of Oscar Wilde
and both David Hare's The Judas Kiss and Tom
The Invention of Love all featured Wilde), and even web sites.
Wilde has fascinated generations since his death in 1900. There have been
several film and TV productions about this uniquely talented man, including
 The Trial of Oscar Wilde with Peter Finch and the 1986 British
Oscar with Michael Gambon. With the publication of Richard Ellman's
definitive biography in 1987, one might have thought there wasn't much more
to be said about the man.

      Yet, Wilde has continued to be a figure of interest and controversy. There
are the stereotypical depictions of him as an epigram-spouting dandy,
sporting long hair and a green carnation. Homosexuals have embraced him as
the first "gay martyr", a man who suffered for engaging in "the love that dares
not speak its name." So many different interpretations for this singular talent.
Wilde, a film biography, based in part on Ellman's biography, opened in England
at the end of 1997 and premiered in the USA on May 1, 1998. (The film's
American release was delayed so it wouldn't have to compete with Hollywood's
Oscar-bait films released in the latter part of 1997. "It's easily the kind of film
that could get smothered by a Hollywood blockbuster," star Stephen Fry
explained.) That sentiment should have sent up red flags immediately.

      This movie is a well-crafted but somewhat hollow effort. It is beautiful to
look at as only a British period film can be, with superb cinematography by
Martin Fuhrer and detailed production and costume design (by Maria Durkovic
and Nic Ede, respectively). For most of his life actor
Stephen Fry has been told
he bears a striking resemblance to Wilde and much publicity was generated by
the claim that this was the "role he was born to play". (In fact, Fry had  
portrayed the author twice before, once as an undergraduate at Cambridge and
again on an episode of the short-lived U.S. Western,
Ned Blessing) Indeed, Fry
does resemble Wilde but there is something curiously flat in his performance.
Noted as a comic performer and acclaimed as a published writer, Fry should be
the perfect actor for the part, but the film's script with its episodic nature and
superficial treatment of the character rarely gives Fry anything to do.

      The filmmakers have tried to present a somewhat revisionist take on
Wilde, showing him to be a loving father and supportive husband. "He has been
interpreted in terms of the scandal," director Brian Gilbert explained,
"[presented] as a stereotype of a gay man who was a gay criminal. He's been
interpreted in terms of the weakness of being a gay criminal, a self-destructive,
meglomaniacal, hubristic kind of man who brought about his own destruction."
Fry added that the importance of telling Wilde's story was "because we all need
reminding about our own inadequacies and that someone even as great as
Oscar Wilde was no better off than we are. The great artistry of Wilde was
never going to make him happy, even of itself and he knew that. Also, he would
never have been happy by denying his nature—simply pretending he didn't find
men attractive."

      The film doesn't shy away from depicting Wilde's homosexuality but those
who complain about the film's frankness are missing the point. "One has a
responsibility artistically to try to imagine what Oscar Wilde did [in bed],"
Gilbert argues. "It is the source of the great catastrophe and scandal. . . . Of
course, there's very little evidence for almost any figure for what people
actually do in the bedroom. We know there was behavior that was sufficient to
get him thrown out of hotels like the Savoy. It's important, if Wilde is to earn
anyone's admiration, he genuinely has to earn it and he can only earn it from
the audience if they have the opportunity to criticize and to judge him and to
feel offended by him. That gives the audience an opportunity to go on a real
journey where we can, in part of ourselves, identify and think had I been alive
in Oscar Wilde's time, would I have joined in the chorus of those attacking him."

      This sense of responsibility to portray the paradoxical figure that was
Wilde is admirable, but the intellectual bent rarely translates well to the
artistic. Despite Fry's resemblance, his performance seemed curiously remote.
He poses well, delivers the quips with panache and exudes chemistry with his
co-stars, but he seemed hamstrung by the script. Screenwriter Julian Mitchell
has adopted an almost paint-by-numbers approach to Wilde's life. We see him
speculate over a portrait of an elderly society figure and the next scene
contains a discussion of Wilde's classic
The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Similarly,
we are treated to a brief rehearsal of
The Importance of Being Earnest as well
as the play's opening night. And elsewhere, Fry intones snatches of the
children's story
The Selfish Giant (used to draw parallels between Wilde and
the giant), the magnificent
De Profundis and the moving The Ballad of
Reading Gaol
. It's commendable that Mitchell wants to present some of the
author's oeuvre to the audience, but in many cases, it proves more of a
distraction than anything else.

      In addition to the film's sumptuous visual look, what pleasure there is
to be derived comes from watching expert character players tear into their (in
many cases) underwritten roles. Vanessa Redgrave has a few brief but welcome
scenes as Wilde's mother. Jennifer Ehle shines as Constance Wilde. Her scenes
with Fry crackle and they share a particularly moving moment when she visits
him in Reading Gaol. Jude Law brings the requisite beauty, petulance and self-
centeredness to Lord Alfred Douglas ('Bosie'), Wilde's great love, albeit a
dysfunctional one; director Gilbert pointed out that what makes the love affair
so serious and interesting is that Douglas was unworthy of Wilde) but after his
one-note performance makes you just wants to slap him. Michael Sheen and
Ioan Gruffud as former lovers of Wilde strike the right notes and Tom Wilkinson
provides some insight into the piece's villain, the Marquess of Queensberry, the
father of Lord Alfred.

      I had hoped to enjoy this film more, but it left me with mixed feelings.
One thing it did accomplish, however, was to get me to re-read Wilde's poetry
and plays. After that I felt exhilarated, having exposed myself to the author's
wit and genius. If only
WILDE had managed to capture a small part of that.

Rating:                C
MPAA Rating:       R for strong sexuality and language
Running time:       118 mins.