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Review: Wilde (1997)

Director: Brian Gilbert | 118 minutes | drama, biography, history | Actors: Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Vanessa Redgrave, Tom Wilkinson, Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Fitzgerald, Michael Sheen, Zoë Wanamaker, Orlando Bloom, Jennifer Ehle, Gemma Jones, Judy Parfitt

Everything used to be better? Well not so! At least if you know the tragic story of author / poet Oscar Wilde you will not be inclined to quote the, oh so, well-known proverb about the good life in days long gone. Wilde’s is a bitter tragedy, which unfortunately really happened. This 1997 film adaptation highlights the fatal love between Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.

“Wilde” begins with the introduction of Oscar Wilde (Fry). The 36-year-old Irishman is happily married and has two beautiful children. Yet something is gnawing at him. Wilde knows that he is “different” from the average man and he discovers that when he discovers gentlemen’s love. Oscar is gay and despite the love he feels for his wife, he is only truly happy when he is with a man. And that man is Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Law). The narcissistic personality of the handsome Bosie drives a wedge between Wilde and his family. The respected author of famous plays is increasingly becoming a pariah in the Victorian community, denouncing him for his sexual orientation. The exacting Bosie consumes Wilde’s full attention and his work as a poet and author is increasingly in dire straits. When Bosie’s narrow-minded father, the Marquess of Queensberry, threatens to expose the relationship between Wilde and Bosie, Wilde makes a fatal mistake: he decides to challenge the charges in court. But can he deny his homosexuality without committing perjury?

Observant readers will have noticed that Wilde’s life is very similar to the present day. Unfortunately, people with different lifestyles are still viewed suspiciously by our society. Fortunately, no one will be brought to court so quickly because of his homosexuality, but the tolerance we love to talk about is still hard to find. Who could not think of an example of celebrities filing lawsuits to “prove” that they are not homosexual? For example, sued a gossip magazine claiming the famous actor is gay. In the Netherlands, football player Marc Overmars fought against a boulevard magazine that “accused” him of homosexuality. Apparently it is a shame if you have a different lifestyle than the average person. Anyway, back to the movies. However poignant the life story of Wilde may be, it did produce a beautiful film.

What is immediately noticeable about the film “Wilde” is the incredibly strong acting of the Briton Stephen Fry. The Englishman portrays Oscar Wilde in an unparalleled way. Fry gives his character something intangible, a certain mystique. Despite some very dark traits, Fry’s Wilde remains an enigmatic and sympathetic character. And that is great, because Wilde did not hear from his wife and children for years, who are gradually becoming more and more alienated from him. Yet as a viewer you get along so well thanks to Fry’s catchy rendition. You are inclined to forgive Wilde for all his wrongdoing, and you cannot but feel deeply for the brutal character assassination committed on him just because of his “forbidden” love. The portrayal of a man maligned and broken by society is also played in an inimitable way by the British actor.

The then completely unknown Jude Law plays Wilde’s lover. In this difficult role, Law can showcase all his talents. Bosie is portrayed as a narcissistic young man plagued by inner demons and a great lack of self-confidence. It soon becomes clear to you as a viewer that the affair between Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas cannot go well: Wilde is too forgiving and too dependent and Douglas too demanding and affectionate. The men slowly drag each other into the abyss. Wilde is completely taken over by Bosie, who genuinely loves him but cannot show it. Law is acting great. Despite Bosie’s many unsympathetic qualities, you can still relate to what attracted Wilde to him now. Under the surface lurks a hurt boy who needs attention and love, but is unable to give it himself. Law knows how to perfectly capture the essence of his character.

Besides Fry and Law, who are the pivot of the film, “Wilde” also has good supporting actors in the form of Redgrave and Ehle. But it is especially who shines in the most beautiful supporting role. Wilkinson plays Bosie’s violent father. The bitterness and resentment towards his son’s views on life makes Wilkinson almost tangible with his strong portrayal. The acting of the film is therefore top notch. Also in terms of camera werk, this film is fine to enjoy. Especially the scene in which Wilde walks through a crowd of men with black coats in his gray / pink costume will be burned on your retina forever. The symbolism is clear: Wilde goes against the current and rises above the gray matter. Because of Wilde’s sexual orientation, the film cannot escape showing some homosexual scenes. And it has to be said that director did that in a beautiful, respectful way. The film never gets explicit and even the biggest homophobes cannot take offense at the way in which Gilbert portrayed the sex scenes. Apart from a bare butt and some suggestive movements, there is nothing to be seen. Unlike many of his colleagues, the director did not incorporate provocative erotic moments in his print to “spice things up a bit”, but purely to emphasize the story.

What is a shame about this film is that some events are not sufficiently exposed. In particular, Wilde’s neglect of his wife and children could have been more pronounced. Now Gilbert touches on that subject lightly and focuses further on the between Wilde and Bosie. The end of the film is also a little too short-sighted, “Wilde” could take a little longer to portray a more satisfying ending. Now you have to make do with a few text bars that tell your stories about the further end of Wilde’s life. That is a bit too meager. It is also a shame that the film has not made much use of Oscar Wilde’s work. A single quote from the Irish author: “You’ll have to make do with that.” And it is precisely because of the magnificence of those words that you will be eager to learn much more about the works of this man. But you have libraries for that, actually.

As a biopic, “Wilde” is a successful film. It is still distressing that people who deviate from the norm feel limited in their lifestyle. Unfortunately, Oscar Wilde’s story is still very topical. The ongoing report on violence against gays confirms that not much has changed in the world we call so civilized.

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