Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Dorian Gray (2009) : Vanity Will Get You Nowhere...

I'm thinking maybe I'm not supposed to like this film as much as I do, and maybe I should consider it a guilty pleasure... but I'm rather in love with 2009's Dorian Gray. 

Much of it probably stems from my admiration and adoration of Oscar Wilde's 1891 source novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It has always been one of my favorites, showcasing the shameless vanity of a young man who can't quite come to terms with growing old and hence sells his soul to the devil to remain beautiful. 
Yeah, I'd do that too.

This particular adaptation of the classic story stars Ben Barnes (yeah, the guy that plays Prince Caspian in those Narnia films) - a beautiful man indeed, and quite good in the role.

At first Dorian is a naive young man arriving in Victorian England after apparently being away from his childhood home for some time.  He quickly meets Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth), a man eager to show Dorian the more sordid activities of the town.   Still unsure of himself, particularly around those of the opposite sex, Dorian isn't much for Henry's philandering. 

When he meets one of Henry's artist friends, Basil (Ben Chaplin), he is quick to agree to a sitting which turns out to be a striking likeness of Dorian and a wonderful piece of art that is well received in social circles.  Dorian becomes infatuated with the painting - unable to take his eyes off it - and almost teasingly mentions that he'd give his soul to the devil himself to remain as young as that portrait forever.

As most already know, that is the beginning of the end for our hapless heart breaker.  Soon, Dorian meets a beautiful aspiring actress, Sibyl (Rachel Hurd-Wood), with whom he falls in love with almost immediately.
Rushing into an engagement, he is chided by Henry when Sibyl mentions the fact that she'd like to have children right away.  Dorian, seeing the aversion in Henry's eyes at the thought of having kids so soon, agrees to go to a house of ill-repute with Henry, where he ends up getting high off the crack pipe (okay, so it was no doubt opium) and spending the night with one of the 'employees".  When Sibyl becomes suspicious of his whereabouts, Dorian breaks off the betrothal to save face. 

Here is where Dorian begins his lecherous descent into debauchery and mindless indulgences.  He sleeps with pretty much everything that walks, spends money like it's going out of style, and acts like he's the greatest thing since sliced bread.  At one point he even sleeps with a fresh-faced young debutante at her coming out party (she must have been all of 15) and then, sinking even lower into depravity, beds her mother when she comes seeking the girl out.  It is only afterward that we find out the youngster was hiding under the bed the entire time Mom was squealing Dorian's name in the throes of passion.  Yikes.

And here's where you ask - what the hell is this, The Tudors?  The Libertine?  Where is the horror? 
Ah, I was getting to that.  With each ridiculously perverted and lewd act, Dorian's picture becomes just a little more decayed.  Dorian doesn't find this out however, until his beloved Sibyl is pulled from the river after drowning herself in sorrow, taking their unborn child with her.  This only causes Dorian to become more lascivious than ever. When Basil confronts him, trying to find out just what has gotten into his friend, it is inferred that Basil may quite possibly have feelings for Dorian.  Taking advantage of this apparent attraction, Dorian even goes as far as to seduce Basil. (This did not happen in the book, but it did work to the film's benefit, so I won't argue the facts.)

The morality of the storyline both here and in the book is a marvel.  Vanity is an ugly curse, never more than within this tale.  When Dorian finally admits to Basil the truth behind his painting - because he has hidden it in the attic now due to the deterioration of his picture with every sinful moment - he ends up killing Basil to keep his secret safe and to be able to keep his hedonistic lifestyle afloat.  

Henry too, wonders what has happened to his friend.  When Dorian decides to travel abroad, he leaves for what ends up being several years.  Upon his return, family and friends are absolutely bowled over to discover Dorian doesn't seem to have aged one iota.  At a party held in his honor, Dorian shocks the guests by showing up looking precisely as he did the day he left.  The party goers include many of Dorian's sexual conquests, all aged at least twenty five years more since they've seen him. Henry is positively aghast at Dorian's looks - and becomes even more concerned when his ageless friend takes a liking to his grown daughter, Emily (Rebecca Hall).  After being privy to Dorian's adventurous lifestyle for countless years, any dad worth his salt would certainly attempt to keep his only child away from the corrupt enigma. 

But against Henry's wishes, the two become involved.  Meanwhile, Dorian hides the horrifying painting of himself in his attic under lock and key, trying to keep the secret of his youthful appearance under wraps and continue his supposed redemption. But the painting takes on a life of its own, quite literally, making it nearly impossible for Dorian to lead a normal life.

My only real gripe with the film is the CGI used for the changing portrait of Dorian shoved in the attic.  I think it could have been avoided altogether, with practical effects being quite sufficient to show the decay and wasting away of the picture.  Instead, they chose to add maggots and snarling (in that order) to which I say Bah. 

But the acting is really quite good, in particular Colin Firth.  But that should come as no shock to anyone, as pretty much everything he touches is gold.   He makes a fabulous Henry, utterly believable as Dorian's corrupt yet fascinating mentor.

Ben Barnes himself is none too shabby either, truth be told.  Adding a hefty dose of sexy to an already dreamy look he has had going for some years now, Barnes as Dorian is as convincing as he is alluring, none more so than when he is gathering women up to bed as well as if not better than the modern day substitute, Charlie Sheen.

The atmosphere of the film is striking as well, but then again I've always had a thing for Victorian England.  It is as dark and mysterious as you'll get in the bleak alleyways of London, and the scenes of lustful pleasure and endless parties are bright and resplendent in contrast.  It's just a nice-looking film.

But even in the end, though it seems like Dorian truly wants to make amends and intends to change his ways for Emily - a man who has made a deal with the devil rarely has the last laugh.


Monster Scholar said...

My gripe with this film was that there was no subtlety. The sex and debauchery is just shoved in your face. The appeal of the book for me was that it was all suggestion. I guess that is just the hazard of transferring books to a visual medium.

James Gracey said...

I too love Wilde's novel, though it has been many years since I've read it. I deliberately avoided this in the cinema because I thought it looked too, juvenile, or diluted or something. I'm sure all of the simmering, red-raw subtext from the book has been obliterated in favour of, as you pointed out, CGI paintings and pretty boy poutings. But hey, maybe after a few glasses of something red, I'd be more on your page. I didn't know Colin Firth and Ben Chaplin were in it, either. Can’t be all bad then, can it!

Anonymous said...

I was glad to see a review of this because I've been wanting to see it for some time, but then forgot about it for a while... I'm going to have to put it back on my list of movies to see. It looks as if the movie will at least be visually appealing, and I tend to like that dark, gloomy Victorian atmosphere as well.

Sarah said...

Warning: I'm going to nerd out here since I spent much of last year studying this book & watching it's various film adaptations.

I wasn't crazy about this movie. It had some good points and was really well made compared to the other 00s adaptations, but I did not like how Lord Henry became a easily shocked patrician character at the end. I'm not crazy about how most modern adaptations of the book shove a hetero love interest in during the last 30 minutes, and this one was really bad. Emily had a personality, then it was lost as soon as she fell in love with Dorian (i.e., "let's see if this will bring the Twilight fans in...hey kids, Prince Caspian is shirtless!"). Granted, this adaptation was the most ballsy one since the 1976, but it also was trying to adhere to the 1945 version which couldn't be ballsy due to both cultural and Hollywood restrictions back then.