Originally written for SCROOMtimes.
Every so often, I run into someone who doesn’t know who Oscar Wilde is. When the conversation turns to literature, and I wax eloquent about this master of the English Language (and the French one, too, if you recall Salome), they stare at me blankly, and ask, “Who?”
At that point I am usually lost for words. Oscar was such a complex person, and his life was so flamboyant, extraordinary, and tragic (to use a few of the many appropriate adjectives), that it is almost impossible to summarize him.
This fact makes Wilde (the new film about his life) all the more remarkable. It begins in 1882, with Oscar (Stephen Fry, of “Jeeves and Wooster” fame) descending into a Colorado silver mine to see a new vein which has been named after him. With characteristic Wildean wit, he comments that he would have preferred gold, but “we live in a silver age, alas.” The film passes over the early part of his life briefly, chronicling his marriage (after his tour of the US) to Constance Lloyd, the birth of their two children, and the success of his first play, Lady Windermere’s Fan. After he becomes involved with Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), known to his friends as “Bosie,” the film’s pace slows a bit, and those of us familiar with Oscar’s life begin to clutch our popcorn. He and Bosie begin a passionate affair, which swings wildly between perfection and hell. Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry (of the famous Queensberry rules) is a monster of a man (Tom Wilkinson, The Full Monty), and his son has more in common with him than either would like to admit. When Queensberry learns about Oscar’s friendship with Bosie, he is enraged, and begins doing everything in his power to separate them. When he leaves a card at Wilde’s club, addressed to “Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]” Bosie insists that Oscar take him to court for libel. Oscar’s friends do everything they can to dissuade him, but he gives in to Bosie, as he always has. The rest, as they say, is history.
Wilde is little more than an overview of Wilde’s amazingly complex life (an entire play is currently on tour, which is only about the trials), but it is a good one. It is difficult for me, a self-pronounced Wilde-aholic, to tell what it would be like to one unfamiliar with Oscar’s life and works, but it moved swiftly enough to keep my attention riveted to the screen and didn’t lose me. In fact, in spite of the fact that I knew exactly what was going to happen, I was moved almost to tears by it. At times the scenes of his family, with a voice-over of Oscar’s tale “The Selfish Giant,” border on the saccharine, but over all it is a tragedy on the grand scale.
Fry is well known for his comedic work with partner Hugh Laurie, but here his sense of humor is channeled into the dry and brilliant wit Oscar poured lavishly into his writing and conversation. Fry’s very Wildean physique (tall and somewhat jowly) combines with his seamless portrayal to bring Oscar to life. In life, Oscar dominated his surroundings, and the film is no different. The supporting cast is dwarfed in many respects by Fry’s performance and Oscar’s nature, but is nonetheless wonderful. Law seems to have taken his portrayal of the sensual, violent character he played in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and somewhat civilized him. The result is a wonderful performance ranging from Bosie’s lovely adoration of Oscar to his horrible temper tantrums. Wilkinson is almost unrecognizable to those of us who remember him in The Full Monty, and presents a simultaneously frightening and pathetic character in Queensberry. Even in the one scene where he isn’t furious, there is an air of barely restrained fury that puts viewers on edge. As Constance, Oscar’s long-suffering wife, Jennifer Ehle is marvelous, although at the end of the film we know little more about Constance than we did at the beginning. The rest of the supporting cast is equally strong, providing performances as seamless as Fry’s. On a more technical note, everything about the film is beautiful: the lighting, the costumes, the young men Oscar associates with (Jude Law carries off the pouting beauty Bosie is reputed to have had wonderfully), the sets, even the horses. Cautious makeup is used to age the various characters, and to give Oscar an amazingly haggard look when we see him in jail.
What is the bottom line? Wilde is a wonderful tribute to Oscar, a way to get an overview of his life that will leave viewers wanting more. Fortunately, there is a wealth of material about him out now, ranging from plays to books. If, however, you are looking for action and adventure, you might want to go see Godzilla.