Parker's Picture of 'Dorian Gray' a Hazy, Brazen Affair

Directed by: Oliver Parker, Runtime: 112 minutes
Grade: C

Oscar Wilde's supernatural novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" focuses on the lightning-in-a-bottle transience of youthful beauty, existing as an ominous and, in ways, "immortal" critique on society's fascination with superficiality and self-indulgence. Over a hundred years later, as we're still vexed by the same obsessive mix of seizing the day and hunting for the figurative Fountain of Youth, it makes sense that an updated take on the Victorian-era gothic horror tale stands a chance at striking a chord with both popular culture and traditional literary circles. Such isn't the case for Oliver Parker's Dorian Gray, unfortunately, which loses the story's message through embellished style, murky themes, and a tawdry pastiche of hedonistic wiles -- not to mention a merely tolerable turn from Ben Barnes as Dorian.

Penned by first-time writer Toby Finlay, this adaptation of Wilde's novel takes healthy artistic license with the narrative, beginning with the first frames of the film that feature Barnes' Dorian splattered with blood and holding a shard of glass. After quickly jumping back a year to when Dorian first arrives in Victorian-era London, the story finds familiar ground by introducing the young, bashful twenty-something to artist Basil (Ben Chaplin, Me and Orson Welles) shortly after moving into the lavish home he's recently inherited. Basil, a painter, becomes awe-struck with young Dorian's beauty, which inspires him to create his finest work -- a full-body portrait. Soon, while tip-toeing within Basil's social circle, Dorian connects with the roguish wit of Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth, Bridget Jones' Diary) and, under the influence of Henry's philosophies, quickly transforms into a jaded pleasure-seeker.

Basil's painting eventually becomes a supernatural spotlight, just like Wilde's novel and Albert Lewin's '45 classic film, by linking to Dorian's body and causing him to never age or show the wear and tear of his rambunctious lifestyle, instead transplanting the effects of his unsavory adventures to the painting. Oliver Parker's take on the story, however, forgets to let the audience in on much of anything about the painting's other-worldly properties and its effects on Dorian, neglecting to outline any rhyme or reason -- let alone any rules -- to its presence. This adheres more to the source than the Egyptian influence in Lewin's version, yet it's overtly murky in construction within a film setting. It leaves the audience in an ambiguous darkness, swirling together an oily, undefined plot device that never concretely answers whether Dorian willingly or unwillingly barters for immortality or what happens upon its destruction. That also includes whether Dorian's the type of intrinsic soul who'd feel guilt over his decaying self-portrait, truncating Wilde's thematic design and leaving too much unnecessarily vague.

In place of an intellectual core, Dorian Gray fills the void by boldly slithering around the impish corners of an attractively-shot, nudity-filled Victorian London, all to convince us of Dorian's burgeoning experience as he rapidly -- and unconvincingly -- shifts from doe-eyed innocence to unbridled sexuality. The changeover happens in stark, abrupt fashion, even if it supposedly runs the course of a year, with little in the way of a convincing gray area between the Dorian who's rushing into marriage with local actress Sybil Vane (Rachel Hurd-Wood) to a Dorian who finds himself in the middle of multi-gendered threesomes and opium dens. Ben Barnes doesn't really aid in the transition, either. The Chronicles of Narnia actor might carry the character's hyper-attractive allure in a way that convinces of his ability to unshakably woo both sexes, but his shift veers far from the consequence of mere youthful impressionability.

Oliver Parker still directs the other elements in Dorian Gray with a steady hand, rendering a moody gothic temperament and a slow-festering current of tension around Dorian's condition. He makes opulent use of the era's setting, shooting the musty corners of London through Harry Potter cinematographer Roger Pratt's rich eye for detailed, bleak situations, while capturing Dorian's scantily-clad rendezvous in both invitingly warm and chillingly rigid lights, heightening the visceral texture of the sequences nearly to a point that would substantiate his descent into hedonism. Parker also pulls weighty performances from a nuanced Colin Firth and an unnerved Ben Chaplin as the angel and devil on Dorian's shoulders against this backdrop, allowing the two of them to shape him in this juicy environment of endless decanters of gin and brazen women. while also inspiring another elegant performance from The Prestige's Rebecca Hall later on as Henry's daughter.

Atmosphere, lurid images, and fine craftsmanship behind the supporting characters that shape the young man aren't enough to shove Dorian Gray's real purposes forward, which ultimately cloud Lord Henry's conceited banter and Dorian's simmering narcissism all the way through the story's chaotic final act. The lack of focus and an emphasis on stylish riffs in Parker's vision -- including a few feeble traditional jump-scare tactics that fall flat in their attempts to heighten the "horror" -- make for a muddled sludge through Dorian's more awakened later years, swelling with a dark temper but ultimately wandering into a fog. There is a message lying underneath that can almost be grasped, revolving around the pointlessness of squandering one's life away on pleasures of the flesh just get the most mileage out of their outer beauty. But in this attractive and eerie telling, Dorian Gray lacks the clarity to emphasize its thematic magnitude, leaving only an empty shell of supernatural suspense and false growth within a newly-spawned, immortal egotist.


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