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  Publicity Stills of "Wilde"
Courtesy of Shaw

The Greatest Scandal of the Literary World
The Misadventure of the World’s Greatest Writer
The Movie That Was Banned For Theatrical Release Since 1997

Genre: Drama/Adapation
Brian Gilbert
Cast: Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Vanessa Redgrave, Jennifer Ehle, Gemma Jones, Michael Sheen, Judy Parfitt, Tom Wilkinson, Ioan Gruffudd, Zoë Wanamaker, Orlando Bloom
RunTime: 1 hr 52 mins
Released By: Shaw
Rating: R21 (Homosexual Content)
Official Website:

Opening Day: 22 May 2008


In recent times, the literary reputation of Oscar Wilde has shaken itself free of the cloak of scandal which had enveloped it since his trial and imprisonment a hundred years ago. Social and academic attitudes have changed and Wilde is now properly established as one of the most important figures in British literary history.

At last, at the end of the 20th Century, it is possible for a film to present a rounded picture of the Irish-born writer, of his hubris and of the consuming passion which brought him down. No longer is there any need to falsify or ignore the sexual elements which are important parts of this story; equally, the importance of Wilde's wife and children to him and, above all, the crucial importance of his work, can all be examined without the need to weigh one part against the other. All play a central role in the life of this most complex of geniuses.

Movie Review:

A biopic is a really strange thing for a filmmaker. You need to tell the story of a person – a story that's already been written for you, and you need to tell it straight. No embellishments, but no bore either. You are bombarded by moral obligations to depict the truth truthfully and suddenly you realize the movie is not just your own whimsy, but is really much larger than you or in fact the movie itself. It is an event, history in the making, because you deal with real things that happened to famous and beloved people. An unenviable task; how do you get it right?

I would start with great acting - something "Wilde" is richly blessed with. The cast list reads like a who's who in British acting: Stephen Fry (BBC's "Blackadder" and "Jeeves and Wooster"); Vanessa Redgrave (recently in "Atonement"); Jennifer Ehle (BBC's "Pride and Prejudice"); Tom Wilkinson ("Michael Clayton"); and Jude Law in one of his earliest films, way before Hollywood knocked and effectively derailed his career. Normally ensemble casts like these easily degenerate into excess but, thankfully, not so in "Wilde", as the actors play off each other beautifully, delivering pitch-perfect performances all around. It is interesting to see something made in 1997 in a way (the film was banned in Singapore until now due to homosexual content) as it reminds us of the good ol' days, back before the paparazzi messed up the movie industry by promoting a celebrity culture of excessive exposure. There is a sort of economy of style and technique coming from each actor in "Wilde" that makes the film so rich to watch (this is no flighty "Ocean's Twelve") and one senses the vintage in the film - oh, back in the day!

Jude Law is another something worth lamenting for. His casting as Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas harks back to those early roles of his that earmarked the young actor as a rising talent. Think "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Gattaca", where both times he played overbearing, privileged brats whose ornery personalities openly mocked his Apolloian looks. Similarly, as Bosie, Law plays it petty and vicious, then with a shrug turns angelic and beautiful. It is important that Bosie is seductive despite his wretched insensitivity since it was his very youthful petulance that attracted Wilde in the first place. Good thing for Jude Law, then - one would be hard pressed to find another actor more naturally gifted and physically blessed to play Lord Alfred.

Stephen Fry also enjoys a similar physical privilege acting as Oscar Wilde in that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the playwright himself. (See: Google.) On top of that, Fry slips into the role of Wilde as hand to glove - a perfect fit, and delivers one of those performances that really makes you forget you are watching a person in costume, putting on an act. Remember Wilde was a great celebrity in his day - all charming wit and openly gay, but Fry's manners are measured and controlled, which makes his interpretation of Wilde much more believable. He carefully negotiates Wilde's contradictions with regards to his wife Constance (Ehle) and his persistence in continuing the destructive affair with Bosie, in spite of the advice from his loyal lover Robbie Ross (a memorable Michael Sheen). We get a full stretch of Wilde's emotions: stormy and gentle, forward and meek - a testament to Fry's skill as he masters them all. In a scene where a visibly haggard Wilde hides behind a pillar, nervous about meeting the younger and better-looking Bosie after a period of absence, Fry is pathetic but predictable - a perfect portrayal of a fool in love.

Glowing appraisal aside, at 118 minutes "Wilde" is a tad long and certain parts appear to be misplaced and distended. The two minute opening scene for example with Wilde in Colorado on his lecture tour is a head-scratcher and the last third of the film depicting Wilde's fall from grace feels rushed. Indeed the film consists of three major acts: Wilde's life pre-sexual awakening, Wilde's life after meeting Bosie and Wilde in a libel trial between him and Bosie's father that eventually lands him in jail on counts of "gross indecency," but the transition between the second and third acts is too sudden, as if a switch was suddenly flicked on causing the movie to charge breathlessly towards its finish. Indeed, perhaps "Wilde" might have benefitted from more rigorous editing, especially of the second act, which occupies the bulk of the film's attention.

So I return to my question at the top of the page: how do you get a biopic right? It seems the dilemma in adapting Wilde's life for a modern movie is between telling the story that's well-known - Wilde's sexuality, his public life and the libel trial, or the story that's slightly more obscure - his family and private life and transition to homosexuality. While the former provides the dramatic turns of a good story, the latter adds narrative depth; my slight dissatisfaction with the film arises from its lack of discipline in balancing between the two. As a result of focusing on Wilde's lesser known life and delving deep into character studies, the film's narrative structure became lax. That is not to say director Brian Gilbert lost the plot - not at all, but a firmer grip on the larger picture would have elevated the quality of this film.

It is a standard that all good movies should have believable acting and a tight script, but in telling a story that's already been written for you, a good biopic must also be neither hindered nor obsessed with historical detail. Instead it should be guided and inspired by it, then driven by creative storytelling and acting. "Wilde" had terrific acting and a good story, but the telling was somewhat lackadaisical and often the film depended on the actors to carry the story through. It is not a poor production by any account, but certainly a potentially great one.

Movie Rating:

(Top performances all round; you could teach an acting class with "Wilde". Worth a peek if Victorian England movie types are your cup of tea, and if you miss Jude Law...back when he was still unspoiled by Hollywood!)

Review by Angeline Chui


. Atonement (2007)

. Infamous (2006)

. Pride & Prejudice (2005)

. Capote (2005)

. The History Boys (2006)

. The Man of My Life (2006)

. Closer (2004)

. Lan Yu (2001)

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