Lawrence Russell

Wilde (1998) dir. Brian Gilbert writ. Julian Mitchell cine Martin Fuhrer edt Michael Bradsell score Debbie Wiseman star Stephen Fry (Oscar Wilde), Jude Law (Boise), Vanessa Redgrave (Speranza, Wilde's mother), Jennifer Ehle (Constance, Wilde's wife), Michael Sheen (Robbie Ross), Tom Wilkinson (Lord Queensberry), Judy Parfitt (Lady Mount-Temple), Zoe Wanamaker (Ada Leverson)

Sony Pictures

The Number of the Beast: C.3.3.

The Oscar Wilde story is well-known: son of the Irish poetess "Speranza" (Lady Wilde, whose salon is a famous Dublin art scene), he leaves Trinity and goes to Oxford where he wins a prize for his first book of verse. Given notoriety by the public's mistaken impression that he is the model for Bunthorne, the bohemian poet in a Gilbert & Sullivan opera, he sent by a promoter on a tour of North America. His reputation as a cultural critic and brilliant epigrammatic conversationalist established, he returns to London, marries, has two children and supports his family as a journalist.

Following his success as a playwright, he attracts a number of young male disciples of foppish persuasion and allows his appreciation of classical Greek sensuality to lead him into homosexuality and ruin. The primary instrument of this tragedy is Lord Alfred Douglas, a feral young wastrel whose vituperative self-indulgence allows his brutal equestrian father Lord Queensberry to charge Wilde with moral corruption. Wilde is subsequently found guilty of buggery, sentenced to two years hard labour as prisoner C.3.3. His experience is memorialized in The Ballad of Reading Gaol and in the posthumous treatise of spiritual engineering, De Profundis.

On his release in 1897 he goes into exile in Paris (under the alias Sebastian Melmoth) where he dies in November 1900, a victim of the sexual politics of the period... and, no doubt, his own poor judgement.

So how hard can it be to write a screenplay with such dramatic source material? What is there to invent? The narrative symmetry is implicit in the history, the tragedy classic. Fortune, hubris, nemesis -- if Oedipus never existed, there would always be Oscar....

The film opens in 1881 with Wilde (Stephen Fry) visiting the Matchless Mine in Colorado, where he gives a reading to some young shirtless miners down the shaft. They listen politely, laugh at the bon mots, just like undergraduates at an Atwood reading. Believable? Hardly. If Lord Queensberry is an illiterate, then these young miners must also be illiterate. There's an idealized, bogus feel to this scene... and perhaps a missed opportunity to presage the antagonism that later marks Wilde's career.

in the garden of the Selfish Giant

The action then reverts to London, follows Wilde's marriage, his rise in Fortune as an author... and his engagement in homosexual promiscuity. The production is a bit uncertain until "Boisie" (Jude Law) appears, perhaps because the previous action is mostly a summary. As a person, Boisie runs hot and cold, like an animal who licks you one moment, bites you the next. Unlike the other young men in Wilde's cadre, Boisie is a pure aristocrat, who carries on like an understudy for Caligula, cursed by the homophobic rage of his father which in turn blights his sensitive, female nature.

"When I'm dead, cremate me" (Lord Queensberry)

The key scenes between Wilde and Queensberry are extremely good, especially the one at the restaurant where they meet face to face for the first time. Openly hostile, Queensberry joins Wilde at his table, discusses religion, appears to have a meeting of the minds. But opinions are merely a means of cataloguing heresies for the anti-intellectual Queensberry, the sadist who rides with a whip, regardless of who or what he is mounting.

The action becomes a Roman farce, in which women are acted by boys and the real women are marginalized to being off-stage spectators. The problem with writing history is that everyone expects his perception of the events to be realized. Understandably, the Gilbert/Mitchell version of the Oscar Wilde story exploits voyeurism because, well, you can do that sort of thing today... but how many sex scenes are needed? It seems to be edited for propaganda rather than dramatic necessity.

Speranza (Vanessa Redgrave) appears to be mere window-dressing, an exploitation of the Redgrave name rather than an exploration of the character who moulded another tragic genius. Is this the fault of the director or the writer... or the beast who dare not speak his name, the producer? Presumably it starts with the writer, who chose to tell the story in linear time, thereby guaranteeing spacial confusion. You often don't know where the action is located. Irony is lost because of the rapid sequencing -- and psychological possibility because important characters remain mere background. Why didn't Gilbert and Mitchell use a classic frame narrative, i.e.. use Wilde's prison incarceration as the "present" with cutaways to his rise and fall? The image of the broken poet as prisoner C.3.3. on the giant green treadmill says it all.

This frustration exists because certain scenes are very good but just get lost in the shuffle. The same with many of the characters... Gray, the Sphinx, Speranza, Boise's mother, and even Robbie (based on Wilde's literary executor, Robert Ross). When Boise's brother is found shot, you hear about it rather than see it -- a dramatic moment missed. Boise is good. Queensberry is good. Wilde is... interesting, although some might question the "passivity" of his character, an approach that gets around the standard notion of Wilde as a one-liner comedian whose egotistical nastiness set a new standard for the persona of the Selfish Artist.

And the art direction? It certainly doesn't explore Wilde's famous art for art's sake credo, the dandyism of flowers and art explored in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Again, this might be a good thing, self-parody avoided.

While the serial narrative fails the drama, the subject of Oscar Wilde is so interesting the best scenes make this film worth watching: Boise "cheating" on Oscar, Oscar's voyeurism, the enraged Boise firing his pistol in the park, Oscar and Queensberry discussing religion and horse racing, Oscar's wife and mother discussing him on the beach, Oscar on the treadmill... on the treadmill... on the treadmill....

© LR 3/2000


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