“The truth is, I’ve done dreadful things. My life has been a monstrous corruption. And there will be a price to pay.”
The Picture Of Dorian Gray was actually Oscar Wilde’s only full-length novel. It was quite a controversial subject when it first arrived on the scene in 1890, but not because of the horror element. The book is often sexually explicit and contains more than a flirtation with homosexuality. The main themes have survived, but much of the work itself has been forgotten. We know the work almost exclusively from the classic film from 1945 where Hurd Hatfield played the title character. The more notable members of that cast included Peter Lawford, Donna Reed, and Angela Lansbury. That film downplayed the debauchery elements and focused on the one element that appears to remain strongest in our collective memories, that of the picture aging instead of the man. It’s that deal with the devil that most of us think about when we hear the name Dorian Gray, or Dick Clark for that matter.
Now comes a modern British film with a mostly unknown cast. Ben Barnes, who plays the title character here, is mostly known for his role as Prince Caspian in the Narnia films. He’s done little else in his young career to date. But this role will, or at least should, get him considerable notice. At first I have to say I didn’t really like him in the part. There was something about his look that didn’t really do it for me. By the time the movie hit its mid-mark, he had totally won me over with his ability to mix charm and an absolutely evil nature. He could turn off the one and blend effortlessly into the other.
Gray (Barnes) has returned to England to claim the estate of his family. He’s the last surviving member and has inherited the mansion and the money that goes with it. He has also inherited a certain social status and is immediately the darling of the London social scene, particularly with the ladies. But Dorian is shy and not used to all of the attention and freedom to indulge. He falls under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton (Firth). Henry teaches him that a life without pleasure is not one worth living. He pushes him to take advantage of his wealth and station for his own amusement. Women, drugs, alcohol, and money are all things to be used until they are used up.
At a production of Hamlet, Gray meets actress Sybil Vane (Hurd-Wood) with whom he falls in love. He intends to marry, but Henry has convinced him that the girl will only limit his ability to pursue his pleasure. From this point forward, Gray embraces the theology of excess to a point that even frightens Henry. How does he do this and remain so healthy and young? That’s what everyone wants to know, and when Gray falls in love with his daughter, Henry decides to find out. He begins to suspect that a certain painting which Gray has hidden away for years might hold the answer. It rests covered in an attic locked away behind a strong metal door that unlocks with a key Gray keeps around his neck always.
This interpretation is the closest to Wilde’s original source material that I’ve seen. While it isn’t as much of a horror film as others have been, the movie does have some rather horrific moments. One of the things this film has over its predecessors is the ability to present a living, breathing painting through the use of computer generated graphics. While this painting does indeed age for the character, it more importantly takes on the consequences of his debauchery. Gray lives the life of a man who can do whatever he likes, to whomever he likes, without fear of the effects of conscience or physical ailment. He can drink and indulge in all of the sins of the flesh including drugs. He can kill. Any wounds or ill effects are swiftly absorbed by the painting, which turns hideous indeed, reflecting the inner ugliness of Gray’s soul more than the physical.
The film is a totally immersive experience. While it is indeed a period piece, there is something decidedly more modern about the movie. I’m not sure if it’s the acting or the way the themes are handled. This “modern” element is never overt and doesn’t interfere with the subtext at all. The cast is an excellent collection of thespians who all commit solidly to their parts. The set design is wonderful. There is a lot of careful attention to detail. I’m sure these kinds of things only make it easier for actors to become so fully possessed by their characters. If there is a weakness in the film, it is the pacing at times. There is an overindulgence of a point from moment to moment. There is also a rather awkward time gap that almost feels like a different movie in the final half hour or so. It is still a movie that you really ought to check out.
Dorian Gray is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with a VC-1 codec at an average of 33 mbps. This is a very stylish film with some rather excellent detail in the set design. Fortunately, we’re given just as excellent an image presentation so that we might fully enjoy the craftsmanship. The image provides more than merely detail. There is some wonderful texture displayed here. When we first find Dorian in his new mansion, there are some splendid examples of wood in the room panels as well as rails and furnishings. The texture is so good here that you’ll be able to follow the grain and even flaws in the wood itself. Quite impressive. Colors are a bit on the cold side, but that’s intentional. That means there’s a blue tint at times. Black levels are above average, affected more by the cool color temperature than anything else.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is as good as the image presentation. The score offers plenty of dynamic moments that extend well into the sub range. When the film is quiet, it is remarkably so. The audio provides a truly immersive experience. Dialog is always clear. Surrounds might not be all that aggressive, but they are put to fine use to build atmosphere. What it lacks in aggressiveness it more than makes up for in dynamic quality. It’s a fine audio presentation, to be sure.
There is an Audio Commentary by director Oliver Parker and writer Toby Finlay. They both sound pretty laid back, so it’s not the most passionate commentary you’ll hear. They talk often about the book and pat each other on the back quite a bit. It’s certainly informative, if not particularly entertaining.
Making Of Featurettes: There 4 very short subject specific pieces here:
The Painting (1:27) Make-Up And Wardrobe (2:17) Smithfield Market (2:08) Visual Effects (4:15)
Deleted Scenes: (5:59) There are 5. You can’t access them individually.
Blooper Reel: (9:24)
Making Of: (19:07) This feature is mostly interview segments from the set. It’s all nice and informal. Many of the cast and crew speak as if they are unaware there have been other films of the story.
I went into this expecting more of a horror piece. That shows how much the 1945 film has shaped our knowledge and expectations of the story. I think this is the first time that Wilde’s source novel has really been filmed truthfully. The film did not really do well in its limited release. I hope that the Blu-ray release allows a larger group of folks to experience the odd story in a way that may surprise them. It’s a bold film that refuses to cut any corners even with its somewhat limited budget. It was partially funded with lottery money. It’s one of those take-a-chance films, to be sure. But I assure you, “It’s clearly to be recommended”.