First screened and reviewed in June 1998
Director: Brian Gilbert. Cast: Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Sheen, Tom Wilkinson, Zoë Wanamaker, Vanessa Redgrave, Judy Parfitt, Gemma Jones. Screenplay: Julian Mitchell (based on the book Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann). Twitter Capsule:
Dispiriting to see Wilde of all people locked into the cowed dimensionlessness of a standard biopic. Fry's good to no avail.
Fry as Wilde is an idea too good not to test, as is Law as Bosie. Lots of small parts well-cast and well-played, too. Just a fatal dearth of imagination.
Even more bloodless and uninvolving than his previous Tom & Viv, director Brian Gilbert's Wilde is yet another stiff example of lit-crit cinema. This writer, though, surely deserves a more exuberant, energetic portrait than laconic T.S. Eliot did. Oscar Wilde has endured in the world's artistic consciousness as much for his outrageous personal carriage and his relentless self-promotion as for his novels and plays (which include The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest). This film, however, which is ultimately too
reverential toward its protagonist to make him particularly human, reduces Oscar Wilde to a walking aggregate of quips and badinage. Julian Mitchell's script freely doles out many of Wilde's pithy, self-conscious bon mots among its cast but never convincingly fleshes out the emotional conflicts and dramas in which the characters find themselves. The lack of human "dimension" is a frequent but basically misguided criticism of Wilde's plays, but it's much harder to explain away the absence of plausible humanity in a biographical drama than in a stylized theatrical jape.
In such a thin, constraining framework, the power of performances counts for very little; a script like Wilde's does not allow for much connection between characters and audience, regardless of a particular actor's exertions. Thus, Stephen Fry's visually perfect Wilde, Michael Sheen's compassionate friend and onetime lover Robbie Ross, and Jennifer Ehle's beaming but neglected Constance Wilde (the author's wife) are all stranded with visible talent to burn but nowhere to marshal it. Perhaps we owe thanks that the film's stifling lack of texture restrains the usual histrionics of Jude Law, so moving and effective in Gattaca but so nervy and off-putting everywhere else. The only actors who really penetrate the starchiness of
Wilde are Vanessa Redgrave as the writer's mother (though that's more a tribute to her ineradicable incandescence than to anything special she does with this part) and The Full Monty's Tom Wilkinson as the Marquess of Queensberry, eventually Wilde's fiercest adversary. Sadly, these two consummate performers are grievously wasted in a combined total of about ten or fifteen minutes of screen time.
There is a moment early in Wilde where Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglasthe Oxford student and notorious Wilde paramour played by Lawfirst expresses his attraction for the writer, complimenting his ability to puncture the "stuffed shirts" of late 19th-century English society and use his wit like a rapier, a tool "to draw blood." Unfortunately, the arteries of this film are so clogged and hardened, the blood flow so minimal, that without a lively mind like Wilde's own to energize the proceedings, anyone would be better off reading Richard Ellmann's definitive and engaging biography, the cited source for this script. It's fine to treat your protagonist with seriousness and decorum, but when it comes time for drama and emotion, Gilbert and his collaborators wildly overestimate the importance of being earnest. Grade:D+