Big, bold and burnished — “Wilde” is the full monty on Oscar. Toplining British comedian/wit Stephen Fry in a once-in-a-lifetime role as the brilliant, acerbic playwright, and mounted with a care and affection in all departments that squeezes the most from its $10 million budget, movie is a tony biopic that manages to combine an upfront portrayal of the scribe’s gayness with an often moving examination of his broader emotions and artistic ideals. With a good marketing push and critical backing, this offbeat costumer could reap warm rewards as a midstream item, with its appeal cleverly positioned across the sexual spectrum.
Aside from the considerable presence of Wilde look-alike Fry — who has admitted in interviews he was probably born for the part — the movie is the first to go the whole enchilada on Wilde’s homosexuality, with reasonably forthright, though far from full-frontal, sex scenes replacing the lingering looks by Peter Finch and Robert Morley, respectively, in the two 1960 versions, “The Trials of Oscar Wilde” and “Oscar Wilde.”
Achievement of the current pic, however, is that it is far from just an in-your-face ’90s version of the story: Julian Mitchell’s script, from the revealing biography by Richard Ellman, equally addresses Wilde’s love for his wife and children, the nervousness behind his outward courage as a convention-breaker, as well as his higher, Platonic ideals of beauty and youth. In that respect, there’s something for everyone, especially in the handsome widescreen mounting it gets here.
The signals that this is going to be more than your average Brit costumer are visible from the outset: Pic opens like an Anthony Mann Western in the mining community of Leadville, Colo., in 1882, in the midst of Wilde’s yearlong lecture tour of the U.S. and Canada. Incongruous sight of the lumbering writer in the Wild West, where he flirtatiously lectures bare-chested young miners on Socratic ideals, is a marvelous introduction to Fry’s sardonic but sad portrait. (As well as being physically very similar to Wilde, Fry is also very close in age to the man he’s portraying.)
Invigorated by his Stateside experience, and still not confronting his sexuality, Wilde marries the beautiful and adoring Constance (Jennifer Ehle, from “Pride and Prejudice”), by whom he has two sons. It’s only with the arrival of a gay Canadian house guest, Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen), that Wilde opens the dam of his homosexuality: While Constance is putting their sprig to bed upstairs, Robbie calmly drops his pants in front of Oscar in the drawing room.
As Wilde’s career blossoms along with his catalog of boyfriends, smart Victorian society starts rumbling with innuendoes about the playwright’s proclivities. On the more bohemian reaches, however, Wilde is supported by his Irish mom (Vanessa Redgrave) and broadminded friend Ada (Zoe Wanamaker).
Then, much to the chagrin of Robbie and others, at the triumphant opening-night party of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” Wilde is introduced to the upper-crust Alfred (Bosie) Douglas (Jude Law), and falls head over heels for the beauteous, attention-seeking young poet, who insists on publicly parading their affection, as a rebuff both to polite society and to his brutish, homophobic father, the Marquess of Queensberry (Tom Wilkinson).
It’s here that Fry’s perf really kicks in, beyond spouting Wilde’s famously witty bon mots. Behind the man’s overweening arrogance lies a real sadness that his affection for the kamikaze-like Bosie, prone to childish tantrums and sexual philandering, is to be the vehicle for his eventual downfall. But Wilde persists in the relationship, even as the gruff Queensberry, hardly a pillar of polite society, becomes more aggressive in his insults and warnings to Wilde to drop Bosie, and Wilde’s friends point out that Bosie is sapping his creative energies. The result is a trial and Wilde’s imprisonment.
Brian Gilbert, till now only a journeyman director, brings to the picture most of the qualities that were memorably absent in his previous costumer, “Tom & Viv” — visual fluency, deep-seated emotion and first-rate playing from his cast. Aside from Fry, up-and-coming young actor Law (looking remarkably like John Fraser in the 1960 Finch version) makes an alternately likable and infuriating Bosie. Equally strong, and providing a solid arc of friendship across Oscar’s travails, is Sheen as Robbie.
Though she’s on the margins of the story for much of the time, Ehle is excellent as Constance, giving quiet substance to a potentially token role. She comes through especially strongly in the pic’s most moving scene, a heart-to-heart between Oscar and Constance in Reading Gaol. As the most brutish and outspoken screen Queensberry to date, Wilkinson is also first-rate. Wanamaker, Redgrave and Judy Parfitt contribute solid extended cameos.
Film is handsomely appointed, from Debbie Wiseman’s full, supportive orchestral score (with a soupcon of “Basic Instinct” in its main theme), through Nic Ede’s lived-in costumes, to Maria Djurkovic’s clever production design that gives pic a look way beyond its budget. Martin Fuhrer’s autumnal widescreen lensing ensures the movie never has a Brit telepic feel.