Oliver Parker takes a meat cleaver to Oscar Wilde yet again in “Dorian Gray,” a film as coarse and crude as its source material is refined and sublime. To paraphrase the great Irish scribe himself, the picture is a monstrous corruption, more at home stylistically in the bloody vicinity of Elm Street or Hammer Studios than in the loftier realms of distinguished literary adaptations, film festivals or the earlier incarnation of Ealing Studios. Having opened theatrically on Sept. 9 in the U.K., the pic looks more like DVD and cable fodder in most other markets, including Stateside.
There are three good things in this latest version of Wilde’s only novel: Colin Firth, who tosses off the vast majority of the script’s appropriated witticisms with seasoned aplomb; Rebecca Hall, who singlehandedly revives the moribund enterprise with a jolt of vitality in the final reels; and the painting itself, which is stunningly rendered.
Otherwise, Parker goes for the jugular, literally, splashing blood all around the famous story of an exquisite young man whose devil’s bargain allows him to retain his beauty and lead a life of depraved debauchery while his portrait ages hideously in an attic. It’s as if the director envisioned a companion piece to “Sweeney Todd,” but with a porno-worthy synth score rather than Stephen Sondheim.
Taken under wing by Firth’s vicarious libertine, Lord Henry Wooton, and tutored to “be searching always for new sensations,” Dorian (Ben Barnes) seduces, then discards the girl he truly loves, Sybil Vane (Rachel Hurd-Wood), to pursue the sybaritic life made possible by his looks. The assorted orgy montages look as appealing as outtakes from a Plato’s Retreat documentary, and while Barnes (“The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”) indisputably rates in the high percentiles in the looks department, he doesn’t exude the ineffable cockiness and jaded sense of perennial entitlement of a born Don Juan.
Struggling a bit with an unbecoming beard, Firth pretends not to notice the vulgarity surrounding him while impersonating Wilde’s epigrammatic surrogate. Having previously pruned the charms of both “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “An Ideal Husband,” Parker will seemingly now be obliged to train his sights on other eminent dramatists for his adaptations; George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, beware.