Dorian Gray shuns overproduction and cheesed up dialogue in bringing Oscar Wilde’s Victorian gothic horror novel to life. It almost feels out of place for a period film to remain faithful to the source and play it straight (READ: It’s nothing like Robert Downey Jr. version of Sherlock Holmes or the Kate Beckinsale version of Van Helsing). Outside of several small doses of CGI, which were used to great effect for the infamous painting, Dorian Gray could be mistaken for a film made 50 years ago.
After inheriting his recently deceased uncle’s estate, young Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes) moves to London. He quickly falls under the guidance of Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth) who imparts his views on life to the impressionable youth. These views all boil down to one core belief that Firth repeats in various manners, “There’s no shame in pleasure.” Dorian transforms from a naïve and gentle youth to a womanizing pleasure seeker with no concern for anyone but himself. Of course, along the way he makes a pact with the devil – Dorian’s soul in exchange for eternal youth.
Firth routinely steals the scenes and is the true driving force behind the film. Several times I was laughing out loud at Firth’s witty replies and opinions on life. He’s got so many great one-liners (thanks Oscar Wilde) that you literally can’t wait for him to dispense another nugget of wisdom upon Dorian.
Barnes on the other hand, is listless, but passable in the titular role. Early on, his awestruck gullible act is a bit overplayed and, well, rather dull. As he turns into the playboy he gets better, but he never portrays with any conviction the truly tragic character the role demands. In fact, his turning from good to bad literally happens in one scene making it feel extremely rushed.
In the best scene in the movie, Dorian beds a young woman at her coming out party while the girl’s mother frantically searches for her. The mother finds Dorian half-dressed, alone in an upstairs bedroom. She questions him about her daughter’s whereabouts to which he plays coy. Dorian then seduces the mother and has another roll in the hay. After the mother leaves, Dorian lifts up the bed skirt to reveal the hiding and now traumatized daughter and quips, “Now, where were we?” A few moments later Firth admits to some party guests that he just lost “a game of double or nothing” to Dorian. Classic!
The film has plenty of small flaws to detract from an otherwise pleasant viewing experience. Particularly, some of the effects, which included some dodgy looking lightning flashes and a train that makes nary a sound, that is, until it runs over some poor soul. Also, oddly Dorian keeps objects that could clearly tie him to at least one murder casually lying around in his attic. Small things, but they do add up.
Even with several minor flaws, Dorian Gray fills the screen with enough booze, boobs, and blood to satisfy the desires of horror and literary fans alike. The film is a proficient tribute to Oscar Wilde’s original material while managing to escalate Gray’s depraved lifestyle and its consequences to even greater heights.
It’s nice to see an adapted film that sticks close (enough) to the source material and still manages to be entertaining to the end. And that is exactly what Dorian Gray accomplishes.
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