Based on the influential novel The Picture of Dorian Gray by visionary writer Oscar Wilde, Oliver Parker’s take on the Gothic classic interestingly focuses on the idea of celebrity rather than the generic horror you would expect. If you anticipate a straight page-for-page adaptation, or an expansion of the Gray we see featured in 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, then be prepared for Parker to twist your preconceptions. The casting of Ben Barnes as Dorian seems bizarre; the hedonistic Gray far removed from his previous roles. The question is, is Barnes capable of fulfilling this dark role?
To begin, Barnes’ performance certainly seems shaky and weak alongside a strong supporting cast. A naïve and unsullied Dorian Gray arrives in London laden with inherited riches. Dorian’s beauty attracts the attention of painter Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), whose painting of Gray becomes Hallward’s most successful work. When asked if he would sell his soul to remain as young and beautiful as he is now, Dorian replies instantaneously that he would. The only thing he lacks, as his mentor Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth) instructs him, is the coveted wealth of experience. So begins Dorian’s spiralling fall into a life of reckless debauchery, wanton sex and eventually, murderous violence – all in the name of experience.
However, this life of excess begins to take its toll – but not on Dorian’s youthful body, as you would expect. Instead, Dorian notices slight changes in his portrait, and as seeping maggots and signs of decay inflict the painting, Dorian’s torn body heals unnaturally. Horrified, Dorian locks the painting in the attic out of sight, for fear his demonic secret to eternal youth be revealed. Yet when Dorian falls irrevocably in love, his hideous secret becomes a time-bomb waiting to explode.
Firth undeniably carries the film, his interpretation of the indulgent Lord Wotton almost flawless, whilst Rebecca Hall delivers a sharp performance as Wotton’s intelligent daughter, Emily. While Barnes may at first seem uneasy in the role, it is exactly this trait of naivety which illustrates perfectly the contrast between the untainted Dorian at the start and the self-assured monster he becomes under Wotton’s influence.
The biggest criticism of Parker’s Dorian Gray is the laboured opening, the drawn out introduction to the characters overly novelistic in its excessive dialogue and unnecessary clarifications. However, once you get past the first half-hour Parker’s vision truly comes alive, and from this point in you will be gripping the edge of your seat as Gray’s decent into excess, decadence and ultimately insanity leads the viewer on a thrilling chase right up until the film’s climax.