Wilde (1997)

D: Brian Gilbert
S: Stephen Fry, Jude Law

Interesting if not entirely satisfying portrait of Oscar Wilde's destructive relationship with Alfred Lord Douglas in turn of the century England which amounts to something less than a drama but something more than a biopic. Based loosely on the literary biography by Richard Ellmann, Julian Mitchell's screenplay centres on Wilde's final years between 1882 (opening with an unexpected sequence where he arrives at a Colorado Mine to the hoots and hollers of American cowboys) and shortly after his release from prison after his conviction for gross indecency.

Essentially, Wilde is a story of a dysfunctional relationship, with Wilde playing the erstwhile father/mentor to Douglas' abused child. Though both men mean well enough for one another, they merely make things worse. Wilde indulges Douglas' petty attempts to shock and outrage people into paying him some attention and Douglas preys upon Wilde's insecurities about himself and especially his age. Though they are in love, it is a love that is blinded by love itself and does not see the inevitable end result of their association. Anxiously waiting in the wings are Wilde's wife Constance (Jennifer Ehle) and his friend Robbie, his first male sexual partner (played by Michael Sheen), both of whom can see what Oscar does not, but who fail to convince him of the truth.

Stephen Fry is physically superb in the central role, though the film's portrayal of Wilde as a tragic character robs him of a certain sense of fun usually associated with the man. He spends a great deal of the film being morose and sombre, reflecting on his situation without being able to act in something of a Wildean paradox, though lacking irony. Jude Law (Gattaca) gives an excellently dispicable interpretation of Douglas, here portayed as an embittered and selfish rich kid eager to get back at his brutish father, the Marquis of Queensbury (nicely played by Tom The Full Monty Wilkinson), whose youth and anguish Wilde finds irresistable even when it threatens to draw him into the fatal lawsuit which would eventually lead to his imprisonment.

Despite the opportunity to flag-waving that the scenario allows, the film has less to do with homosexuality than it does with amorous stupidity. Its tragedy is human, not political, with Wilde himself the centre of the drama rather than the society which surrounds him. It is finally an intimate study of a rather depressing relationship between two people who probably should never have been together, which may or may not appeal to potential viewers in and of itself. Certainly those in search of a conventional history of Wilde's career or a celebration of his artistic talents will be baffled. Equally those seeking a British-made Philadelphia will wonder at director Brian Gilbert's restraint in laying the blame upon society for the ills which befall his hero. On both counts this is a good thing though, and this alone makes it worth seeing.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.