Sunday, April 18, 2010

Movie Log: Wilde

Fifteen or so years ago, I read Richard Ellman's excellent biography of Oscar Wilde -- I was on vacation somewhere, I remember (probably the Amish country in Pennsylvania, about the only place The Wife and I could get to in the early days of our marriage), and I found it as compelling as it was supposed to be. A few years later, that biography was turned into a movie, but it took me another decade to get around to seeing Wilde. (But we're on a period-movie kick lately, so it moved higher in the rotation.)

Stephen Fry has the physical size, the leonine head, and the verbal acuity to play Oscar Wilde; he might not have been precisely born to play the part -- I still reserve that honor for his Jeeves -- but he's as perfectly cast as any man could be. The movie Wilde focuses primarily on his dangerous love-life, starting with Michael Sheen's Robbie Ross and moving on quite quickly to a young Jude Law as the gorgeous and unstable Bosie Douglas.

Wilde is a movie that assumes its audience knows the story, which is a reasonable assumption in most cases. (The Wife didn't know much about Wilde, though -- she was surprised to find out he was gay, which I didn't think anyone could have avoided knowing.) So there's an air of doom around Bosie, and a sense of inevitability for most of the movie. That makes Wilde less compelling to watch, since it's primarily rolling out a series of inevitable events that the audience wishes wouldn't happen. (I'm coming to think good biopics need to be made about people whose lives will surprise the audience -- that can either be done, usually badly, by heavily fictionalizing the life of a well-known figure, or, with generally better results, by picking second-tier or otherwise lesser-known people.)

In the end, Wilde hews closely to one of the great pillars of the Modern Historical Movie -- that the Victorians had great clothes, and wonderful country houses, but they were dreadfully emotionally repressed, and frightfully backward, so it's splendid that we're not them anymore. Wilde's life was more interesting and complex than that, but complexity is death to a movie script -- so we get another version of the Great Man torn down by his unquenchable love for someone utterly unsuitable.
Listening to: Tom Waits - Old Shoes (And Picture Postcards)
via FoxyTunes

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