The Movie

Wilde, the new film biography of author, poet, critic and playwright Oscar Wilde, is an intelligent and dispassionate attempt to examine the last decade or so of the writer's life. The rational, historical impulse that successfully drives it is, unfortunately the same impulse that ultimately derails it.

The film is directed by Brian Gilbert, whose previous efforts include the biography of T.S. Elliot, Tom & Viv and the Sally Field vehicle Not Without My Daughter. It was adapted from the book by Richard Ellmann and the screenplay is by Julian Mitchell. Although they have integrated all the elements of Wilde's story in a balanced way, they have failed to deliver an immediate sense of the excitement Wilde generated and the upheaval, both personal and cultural, his downfall caused.

The rough outlines of Wilde's story are widely and generally known. He was a very talented writer whose output included fiction, children's stories, criticism and several plays that were enormous popular successes. A homosexual intellectual in late Victorian England, he was resented more for his intelligence, wit and his skewering of what he referred to as "the English vice: hypocrisy," than for his personal behavior.

He had the misfortune to form a passionate attachment to Alfred Douglas, the son of the vicious, anti-intellectual Marquis of Queensbury, one of the pillars of Victorian hypocrisy. This was the same Marquis of Queensbury who had championed the brutal and damaging spectacle of bare-knuckle boxing to a knock-out as "The Manly Art of Self-Defense."

Queensbury became obsessed with his son's relationship with Wilde. A contentious and vociferous bully, Queensbury began to publicly attack Wilde with accusations about his sexual life. Wilde, at least partly at the urging of Alfred (known as "Bosie"), allowed himself to be drawn into a libel suit against Queensbury. In the face of damaging evidence, Wilde was forced to withdraw the lawsuit, and the evidence was then used to prosecute Wilde for "gross indecency."

Wilde was convicted, and sentenced to the maximum punishment, two years at hard labor, under the brutal conditions then prevailing in British prisons. He was released at the end of his sentence, having produced two of his most moving works while incarcerated, but his health was permanently damaged. A brief reunion with Bosie Douglas was unsatisfactory, and Wilde retired alone to Paris, where he died two years later. He was 46. One of the two finest writers of his generation, he died in poverty and without having produced anything after his release.

The story, as a plot, is the stuff of melodrama: sex, courtroom drama, a brutal villain, narrow escapes, and finally a tragic end. Unfortunately - as Wilde was one of the first English writers to effectively demonstrate - plot is not, of itself, the stuff of compelling literature; it is believable characters that draw us into a story, give it emotional resonance.

This is the problem with this latest representation of Wilde's story. It centers on the facts of the story, the public personalities of the participants, without offering any real insight into their human condition. It charts the events of the story without venturing into the interior landscape that would give it emotional sense.

Typical is the handling of the character of Alfred Douglas. A mediocre poet (whose work Wilde nonetheless championed), an apparently shallow, spoiled, materialistic hedonist, he was an unlikely soul-mate for Wilde. The mystery of what Wilde saw in him is not meaningfully examined here.

There are certainly a number of possible explanations: an unfulfilled paternal longing (Wilde's own father was absent from his life, and Wilde was by all accounts a devoted father to his own sons); an overwhelming physical/psychological attraction a la Lolita; some intellectual and emotional kinship that was purely private and couldn't be understood from outside the relationship; a self-destructive eruption of repressed self-loathing occasioned by the conflict between Wilde's espousal of his unconventional love and the pressures of the society in which he lived.

Any of these possible explanations - among others - might have been put forth. Instead, the film chooses to tread the familiar path of previous biographies, for the most part simply presenting the events as they occurred without any exploration of the emotional reality that underlay them. It tries to treat Wilde sympathetically, but is almost condescending in refusing to confront his irrational behavior towards Douglas and his own predicament.

Wilde's story is mainly compelling because of the stature of the man. For a person of such talent to have been utterly destroyed through society's hysterical reaction to what a mere hundred years later is widely considered protected private behavior is tragic. But to fully experience the tragedy, we must know the man.

The weakness of the script here rarely allows us to penetrate below the surface of events. When it does, most notably in the jail-house interview between Wilde and his wife Constance, we get a glimpse into depths of feeling a retelling of the story might have evoked.

The failure of the film is not that of the actors. Stephen Fry, as Wilde, tries to embody the contradictions of the character as scripted here with some success. He brings a robustness, confidence and masculinity to Wilde that is probably more true than contemporary caricaturists' representation of an effete fop.

Jude Law's Bosie Douglas is less successful. As written the character is behaviorally complex, but emotionally un-engaging. No real sense of the dynamic that impelled Wilde to throw away his life for Douglas is evoked, and Law seems content to reproduce the surface of Douglas, never providing those subtleties of characterization that might give Fry an emotional charge to play off.

As Wilde's wife Constance, in a relatively few scenes, Jennifer Ehle manages to help Fry explore the little-appreciated but extremely telling side of Wilde that was a husband and father. The emotional link between the two actors creates most of whatever emotional truth there is in the film.

Michael Sheen, as Wilde's former lover and life-long friend Robbie Ross adds some more moments of touching sincerity, but -like most of the characters - is repeatedly shunted aside in an effort to get on with the plot. Tom Wilkinson, (recently seen as Gerald in The Full Monty) is interesting and textured as the riding-crop-wielding, blustering Queensbury. The relatively small role and the relentless pursuit of the facts, unfortunately, give him little scope to develop very far.

The film is a very polished production. The technical level of British film production has kept pace with or exceeded Hollywood standards in every area except stunts and computer-generated special effects, none of which are called for here. Exquisite sets and period costumes, the backgrounds of historic London - many parts still unchanged since Wilde's time - the Stately Homes and the Universities give a visual richness like that cultivated by Merchant-Ivory.

But the beauty of the film, like the appeal of plot, is only skin deep. The disappointment of this film is that, working with such a colorful, multi-dimensional character as Wilde, such talented actors, and a story of such timeless irony and pathos, more has not been made of it.

That's my take on it. What's yours?