The task of adapting a book into a movie is always a formidable one. One must decide what to take out and what to leave in when bringing just about any piece of writing to the silver screen. While this is a necessary evil of the adaptation process, another element has to do with the story that is being adapted. This is, unfortunately, part of the trouble of the Oliver Parker-helmed adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Despite boasting an impressive cast, Dorian Gray seems to struggle in its attempt to overcome, or at least compensate, for its well-known source material.
Those unfamiliar with the source material may either be delighted with the finished product or even further confused by it. It seems difficult to tell when watching the story unfold onscreen. Believe it or not, the story isn’t terribly complex. A young man, Dorian Gray, played by the painfully beautiful and talented Ben Barnes, is corrupted by Lord Henry Wotton, Colin Firth in a compelling and oddly nuanced performance. Gray sells his soul for the promise of eternal youth. Truth be told, the story has become a cliché since its inception, but Wilde was a revolutionary when he first wrote it.
The only issue with the film is that the spirit of ingenuity, and certainly controversy, is lost in translation. There are still pieces of token Wilde wit, such as occasional lines directly lifted from the novel, but barely enough to satiate the appetite of the audience. Scenes of graphic sexuality, lazily pasted together in an indecipherable montage of entwined naked bodies, which would have shocked his Victorian audience feel diluted to the modern sensibility. Even more painful are elements of the narrative, such as Gray bedding both a mother and her daughter in the same night, that are clearly meant to shock but by today’s standards would be relegated to a daytime talk show. The scandal just isn’t there.
The one saving grace is that even with these scenes, they still serve a clear narrative purpose. Compared to the prim and proper Dorian Gray that is presented early on in the film, his descent into decadence and hedonism is a clearly marked evolution. At first, it seems a little slow, but as it spirals out of control into tireless nights of sex and booze. Part of the success of this is due to the performance of Ben Barnes in the titular role. His ability to channel that raw sensuality, while clinging to that boyish image, is perhaps the most shocking part of the film. The audience wants so badly to like this devilish character, but his actions and his beauty seem constantly at odds. While the novel does a better job of displaying this harsh juxtaposition, the film presents it in a visceral and visual manner. It is easily one of the true successes of the film.
Truth be told, the biggest obstacle of the film is its time limit. The film was pared down from its original edit to a film that is a little under two hours. However, the film covers well over 30 years. Granted, there is supposed to be a pronounced gap between the events of the younger Dorian Gray and his return to society, where everyone else has aged despite Gray’s continued youthful appearance. However, there are two equally important storylines, as well as love interests, in each of these separate time periods. To relegate rather hefty plot points and character studies to, roughly, 45 minutes of each is to do a great disservice to the story. Dorian Gray feels as if it should have been a mini-series more than a single movie. However, the cast attempts to do the story justice with the limited amount of time they are given, but unfortunately, it is not enough.
For all of its shortcomings, Dorian Gray is a noble effort. Ben Barnes is equal parts charming and conniving, which is one of the most important elements of the story. Furthermore, the visual aspects of the film, such as costume and visual effects, are absolutely intoxicating. Unfortunately, much like the titular character, the beauty of Dorian Gray is only skin deep. Its surface beauty does its best to disguise the flaws of pacing and the overall issues of timing as a whole.