Friday May 1, 1998
"Wilde" has found a perfect Oscar in the formidably talented Stephen Fry, who brings an uncanny physical resemblance to the Victorian playwright along with a profound grasp of the great wit's psyche.
Coupled with Julian Mitchell's superb script, drawn from Richard Ellmann's landmark biography, and director Brian Gilbert's total commitment to it and to his sterling cast, this deeply moving "Wilde" is likely to remain the definitive screen treatment of Oscar Wilde for years to come. At the same time "Wilde" is a lustrous period piece with a high degree of authenticity in decor and costume.
Fry's Wilde is a big, tall, Irishman with a daunting jaw, large, sensitive eyes and a kindly manner. There is a certain softness within this great looming presence. This Wilde is clearly a brilliant intellectual, a master of paradox who in his all-too-short life would turn some of the most felicitous phrases in the English language. The great thing about this Wilde is that, as beautifully spoken as he is, he does not drip with bon mots every time he opens his mouth. Surely, Wilde didn't speak in epigrams all the time, any more than Dorothy Parker did.
In an inspired opening sequence, we meet Wilde on his famous 1882 American speaking tour. He's just arrived in Leadville, Colo., where he's visiting the Matchless silver mine, (the very one, it would seem, where another celebrated Victorian-era casualty, the once-rich and beautiful Baby Doe Tabor, was found frozen to death in 1935). Once down inside the mine, Wilde is as clearly captivated by the young miners' bare chests as they are about his well-spun tale about the great Renaissance silversmith Benevuto Cellini.
But as Wilde has yet to confront his true sexual nature, he marries and sires two sons, as is expected of him. He loves his wife, Constance (Jennifer Ehle), but his eye keeps roving until at last he's seduced by a young Canadian, Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen), who will be only a passing sexual fancy but remain his staunchest friend.
On the opening night of his play "Lady Windemere's Fan" Wilde is reintroduced to the young Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law), whom he had met briefly the year before. He is transfixed by this gilded but deeply troubled youth of the Gilded Age. Lord Alfred, known as Bosie, has the misfortune to be the son of a brutal homophobic tyrant, the marquis of Queensbury (Tom Wilkinson, the boss of the laid-off workers in "The Full Monty").
"Wilde" is above all a love story, and a classic one at that. Here's a man, not unattractive but a bit ungainly, who's hit the threshold of dazzling acclaim and who falls hard for a beautiful young man who's been alternately spoiled and beaten but never loved by his parents. Of course their physical relationship is fleeting, lasting just long enough for Bosie to become the love of Oscar's life--even if it is ultimately to cost Wilde his life.
One of the many strengths of this film is that it gives us a full-dimensioned portrait of the mercurial Bosie, who could be outrageously petulant, cruel and shamelessly exploitative but was intelligent enough to appreciate Wilde's talent (and thereby envy it).
When Wilde surmises that Bosie loves him as much as he could be capable of loving anyone, you suspect he's right. There's another love story too, between Oscar and the devoted, ultimately understanding Constance; in the end Wilde feels great remorse for what he has put his wife and sons through, to the extent that they must change their names and flee the country.
There is sometimes a certain naivete in genius. Taking an Olympian view of life, this Oscar seems free from the pettiness and narrow-mindedness of lesser mortals. It's as if Wilde were trying to tell himself that somehow his own high-mindedness would shield him from what we would perceive as imminent and inevitable scandal, that having learned to be true to his nature would somehow save the day, even though that day was in an age remarkable for its sexual hypocrisy and moral condemnation of homosexuality.
Although Wilde's libel suit, aimed at the marquis of Queensbury, who privately had labeled Wilde a "Somdomite [sic]," has always seemed an act of self-destructive folly, Wilde apparently had convinced himself that a public attack on the dreadful Queensbury would prevent him from destroying his son. As it turned out, Wilde's downfall was dizzyingly swift, and he wound up sentenced to two years of hard labor for acts of "gross indecency." His health undermined, he would be dead at only 46 in 1900.
Gilbert clearly gave Fry and Law the confidence to play roles that would require a baring of souls, and they are triumphant. Ehle's Constance comes across as a woman of noble character, initially in denial, but never a fool. Sheen's Ross has a genuine loyalty of a degree that is enviable, a quality shared by Wilde's other staunch friend, Ada Leverson (Zoe Wanamaker). Vanessa Redgrave is Wilde's feisty, steadfast mother, and along with Wilkinson, there is strong support from Gemma Jones as the unhappy Lady Queensbury and Judy Parfitt as Lady Mount-Temple, whose tart observations on the hypocritical appearance-is-everything mores of high society help define the world of Oscar Wilde.
A work of superior craftsmanship, "Wilde" moves quite briskly, and the idea of approaching an unconventional life with a traditional narrative style pays off. Unfortunately, the film is marred by Debbie Wiseman's trite, overly emotional score, which has the effect of needlessly underlining every point along the way that has otherwise been made so subtly. It is especially undermining in its morose tone in the film's final sequences, when the pace naturally slows down as Wilde's life enters its final phase.
Everyone else involved in the making of "Wilde" has done an exemplary job illuminating a man and his era. Wilde was a man undone by trying to lead a double life, but one who nonetheless found the courage to be true to himself. Wilde worried that his instantly banned plays would be forgotten, but they are constantly revived, their place in world literature secure. Nearly a century after his death, he is remembered even more than they--and as a hero.
Wilde, 1998. R, for strong sexuality and language. A Sony Pictures Classics presentation of a Samuelson production in association with Dove International Inc., NDF International Ltd./Pony Canyon Inc., Pandora Film, Capitol Films and BBC Films. Director Brian Gilbert. Producers Marc Samuelson, Peter Samuelson. Screenplay by Julian Mitchell, from "Oscar Wilde" by Richard Ellmann. Cinematographer Martin Fuhrer. Editor Michael Bradsell. Costumes Nic Ede. Music Debbie Wiseman. Production designer Maria Djurkovic. Art director Martyn John. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde. Jude Law as Lord Alfred Douglas. Vanessa Redgrave as Lady Speranza Wilde. Jennifer Ehle as Constance Wilde.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times