I don’t tend to see a lot of biopics, but generally they set a tone and stand by it – director Brian Gilbert does no such thing, and I think it made this story of the rise and fall of Oscar Wilde even more interesting. Stephen Fry, of Peter’s Friends and Cold Comfort Farm, and more, is wonderful as Wilde. He manages to pull off the gentility and the distress and the longing that defined Wilde’s life and the discovery of his homosexuality with amazing flair. Fry is really always very very good (even in Spice World!) but this role is really demanding. From revered and loving husband to humiliated prisoner, Fry is fully there and he’s just great. What I mean by an inconsistent tone, I mean that the audience sits back and watches – merry times are handled merrily, grave times handled gravely, with no concern about audience opinion. This is not a bad thing.
Jude Law fans (all 6 of us) will be sad to see how unlikeable Law’s role is as Lord Alfred, aka Bosie. It’s kind of shocking how the American youth and beauty culture is so (unintentionally?) slyly played with in Wilde – Americans automatically favor the lovely, but that gets turned terribly on its ear. Another standout is the character Robbie Ross, played by Michael Sheen (no relation) – he is really marvelous.
I knew almost nothing about Oscar Wilde going into the theatre, and I feel I have met him now. I admire the one play of his I have seen or read, the Importance of Being Ernest, and contrasting his light, verbose comedies with the actuality of his life is a sweet piece of subtext. His wife, Constance, (Jennifer Ehle), I would have liked to see more of, but she is peripheral to the film just as she was peripheral to Wilde’s true inner life.
The film spans a great many years in Wilde’s life, which is only really traceable through costume and the ages of his children. At times it seems to whisk along without really delving into anything, but it does not feel superficial. I must warn the inevitable homophobes out there, the love scenes can be a little much for your intolerant hearts. I thought they were very sweet and honest, but I am sure the frat contingency (and that is SUCH the demographic Wilde is shooting for!) will shuffle uncomfortably in their seats.
It’s a very interesting movie, and I recommend it highly – it would be a lovely evening to see a Wilde play as well as the film, and think about what it cost Oscar to commit those words to paper and to live the life he lived. I am grateful that he was not lost to literature, as he fears in the film.
MPAA Rating R for strong sexuality and language.
Release date 6/29/98
Time in minutes 115
Director Brian Gilbert
Studio Sony Pictures Classics