Sony Pictures, 1997

Brian Gilbert

Julian Mitchell, based on the biography by Richard Ellmann

Starring: Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Vanessa Redgrave, Jennifer Ehle,
Michael Sheen,
Tom Wilkinson

Rated R, 118 minutes

Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, May, 1999


"A wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others."
-Oscar Wilde

The renowned playwright/poet/novelist Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) has long been the subject of serious studies in books, dramas and films. His literary stature is unquestioned, as is his fame for his often caustic wit. Josephine Hogan, muse of Buffalo's Irish Classical Theatre, once told me in an interview that Wilde "could say in a sentence what most of us would take three pages to say." Collections of his sayings adorn many an admirer's bookshelves and coffeetables. Much of Wilde's notoriety, unfortunately, also stems from his conviction and subsequent prison sentence for buggery. For many gay men, he is one of the great martyrs to the cause.

The past years have seen a resurgence in all things Oscar, and Buffalo United Artists is currently producing the Buffalo premiere of Moises Kauffman's Off-Broadway hit, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. For those who are interested in more about the author's life, and do not have the time to read Richard Ellmann's lengthy critical biography, there are three film versions available to choose from. Two films about Wilde were made almost simultaneously in 1959/1960. The first, Oscar Wilde, starred Robert Morley in an exuberant and flamboyant performance that certainly captured my vision of the man when I first saw the film 15 years ago. Movies were not as free as they are now to depict gay love, and so at least half of the film was devoted to the writer's trials for "gross indecency." The same, reportedly, is true of The Trials of Oscar Wilde, which starred Peter Finch. I was unable to rent this film, but Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video states that "the film amazingly tones down considerably the gay implications and offers instead an elaborate and intriguing courtroom drama."

The new film, Wilde, directed by Brian Gilbert, is a revelation. Based on the Ellmann biography, Julian Mitchell (Another Country) has fashioned a witty and well-researched script that is the first to thoroughly document Oscar's personal life on screen. Sumptuously photographed, and filled with many of the writer's greatest witticisms, Wilde refuses to shy away from the more controversial aspects of Oscar's life and confronts all of them head on. His genius, as well as his faults, are all presented in both a dramatic and an intelligent manner.

Oscar Wilde was, of course, the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as numerous plays, including The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windemere's Fan and An Ideal Husband. Wilde was married ("I do need an audience") and fathered two boys. He was both a devoted husband and father, but he also enjoyed many gay affairs on the side. Wilde worshipped youth and beauty and he was often surrounded by young men. It was what Wilde called the "noblest sort of love," harking back to the Greeks when the younger man was often nurtured and educated by an older man.

Wilde's biggest mistake was falling in love with Lord Alfred (Boise) Douglas, a spoiled young aristocrat who both loved and manipulated his mentor. Boise's father was the Marquess of Queensberry, a nasty and threatening man who disapproved of Wilde's influence on his son. When the Marquess left a card with the words "Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite [sic]" at Wilde's hotel, Boise talked Wilde into suing his father for libel. During the course of the trial, Wilde's affairs were revealed in detail, and the writer was sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor. He died a few years after his release.

The emphasis in Wilde is not the trial, but his personal life, particularly his stormy relationship with Boise. One of its greatest strengths is that it does not present Wilde as the usual bitchy stereotype. Instead, we see Wilde as a man of great passion and warmth - egotistical yes - and deeply complex. To Wilde, his life was also his art, and he pursued it with gusto. Yet despite his predilection for young men, he is also seen as both a devoted husband and father.

Mitchell's script is remarkable in that it manages to tell the story without being one-sided. Wilde was by no means, perfect. While he indulges his pleasures, his wife and children are seen home alone and abandoned. Scenes of high society are contrasted with Wilde's forays into cheap hotels where he is enchanted by an assortment of "rent boys." His first homosexual seduction is preceded by a scene in which he passionately kisses his wife and proclaims his love.

Using Wilde's own prose, the screenwriter comes very close to summing up the artist through a recurring narrative device. His masterstroke was to have Wilde recite his charming children's story, The Selfish Giant, on the soundtrack during key moments of the film. He is first seen telling this story to his children. Then, his wife is reading it aloud to the children from a published book while he is living in the West End. We next hear the tale when Boise spends a holiday abroad; Oscar has returned to his family, and the giant's selfishness, along with his new redemption, is recited on the soundtrack. Later, as Wilde labors in prison, the fable has reached the end where the giant is old and dying. Wilde was definitely a giant, and he was often selfish.

But, like the giant in his tale, he could also be warm and loving, and was also quite capable of redemption. The children's tale both comments on, and sums up, Wilde's character while giving the audience a taste of the artist's elegant prose.

There is much to admire in this film. Sexual scenes are presented frankly without any attempt to be "shocking." Wilde is not portrayed as a flaming queen. He is also not viewed as a lecher, nor is he seen as a complete angel. He flaunts unconventionality in the face of a stuffy and uptight Victorian society. An early scene shows Wilde stylishly dressed, and boldly walking through a small crowd of identically dressed Lords wearing black robes and wigs. His wit and his intelligence, combined with his arrogance, eventually does him in. Pursuing the lawsuit against Boise's father, especially in Victorian England, was an act of insane stupidity. As a result, he throws his life away, all for his love of Boise, a young and undeserving viper.

Boise, as he appears throughout the film, is beautiful, charming, yet sometimes icy and cold. I was reminded of Wilde's description of the first change in Dorian Gray's portrait: the face remains splendidly handsome but with a touch of cruelty in the eyes and the mouth. Dramatic licenses are surely taken, but this version certainly depicts Boise as being the catalyst of Wilde's downfall. During Boise's absence, Wilde returns to his family and writes two of his finest plays. As soon as Boise returns, he neglects both and returns to a life of wild abandon.

The public outrage over Wilde's activities had as much to do with class as it did with sex. The gasps heard in the courtroom make it clear that it wasn't just that Wilde had sex with men, he had sex with valets and stable boys! Gasp! Wilde is seen as a threat to society, corrupting its youth with dangerous ideas. The same society which gave him a standing ovation on the opening night of his play now curses and spits on him as he leaves the courtroom. Much less time is spent on his trial than in the previous films and the final scenes of Oscar's ruin are painful to watch.

Openly gay actor Stephen Fry is superb in the title role. His portrait of the artist is one of the richest characterizations I have seen on the screen in years. He captures Wilde's flamboyance without overdoing it. Robert Morley's "larger-than-life" portrayal in Oscar Wilde was also wonderful, but Fry's performance is more subtle and more suited to the film medium. The acting by all is exemplary, and Wilde boasts terrific performances from Jude Law as Boise, Venessa Redgrave as Wilde's bohemian mother, and Tom Wilkinson was the Marquess of Queensberry.

Previous works about Oscar Wilde made him too foppish, this one seems much more human. As for the film's accuracy, I leave that to scholars to debate. But Wilde is a very entertaining and intelligent movie that may change many preconceived notions about the man. Wilde was screened in Buffalo for only one week last year, but at least it can now be rented on video. Because there is no mention whatsoever on the video tape box of Wilde's sexuality, you can find it for rent at your local Blockbuster Video.


More from playwright Julian Mitchell:
Another Country

More from Jude Law:
The Talented Mr. Ripley

More from Vanessa Redgrave:
Prick Up Your Ears




Reviewer's note, 2007: Interjecting a bit of autobiography and historical context here. In many of my older reviews there are references to these films being unavailable at Blockbuster Video. Times have changed, but in the 90s, that was the case. They were a "family store." Blockbuster's policy back then (since changed) of not carrying NC-17 or unrated films forced many filmmakers to emasculate their films to get an R rating so Blockbuster "the family store" would carry it. .I usually reported if the films were available for rent at Buffalo's two funkiest video stores - Mondo Video, which was owned by the film critic from Artvoice Magazine, M. Faust, and was the place to go to get the hard to find titles - and Rainbow Pride, a gay gift shop run by Frank Ball; he also rented videos. For years, his store was the front room in a popular gay bar, Buddies.

Anyway, when I wrote this review you could not find titles like these at Blockbuster. And I often ranted about it. I've left them in these reviews as I put them online because they are a kind of time capsule. Because early in the millennium there was a changing of the guard at Blockbuster. You could rent Queer as Folk there now! Their old policy of no gay films and no unrated films was gone, finished. And that was good news for filmmakers and film lovers everywhere. I even ended one of my columns with a public service announcement that Blockbuster changed its policies and now carried gay films. I'm not being coerced into writing this, I'm just being fair because that was a big turnaround. Of course it was also around the time I discovered and saw that I could rent almost anything from them. Foreign films, independents and of course queer cinema. This note is just to explain how times have changed (for the better) and it is much easier to find queer titles now, whether for rent or for sale. The internet of course got us out of the dark ages too.