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 Stoppard's 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 1960's The Trial of Oscar Wilde with Peter Finch and the 1986 British miniseries 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.