Is there a better screen actress than Vanessa Redgrave? I begin with that because if for no other reason, her brief presence here makes Wilde a must-see picture. The creative force she brings to bear in her work is intensely satisfying in and of itself, completely separate from any virtues or deficiencies in the piece as a whole. She’s stunning. Wilde has virtues and deficiencies, however with one caveat it’s an estimable film.
Art must stand separate from its creators in order to be appreciated properly. Therefore, biographies of artists must always be approached cautiously. If one writer produces mediocre work, but does so in spite of tremendous personal difficulty, does it make his or her output more worthy of praise than the truly exquisite novels of the writer who lived and worked at ease? It’s a fine line were biography ceases to illuminate and begins to interfere in a critical sense. Oscar Wilde is an indisputably brilliant writer. His most enduring contribution to literature is his nearly endless collection of one-liners. (Upon arriving in New York in 1882, he said, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”) Although knowing Wilde’s sexual preferences and some of his personal flamboyance makes for an interesting reading of The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), the work must stand on its own artistically. Thankfully, Wilde stays on the safe side of the line, and the author’s body of work is used as mostly intelligent punctuation to the action, which becomes the story of a man’s self-destruction due to his inability to control his emotional impulses.
Wilde doesn’t offer any endorsement or condemnation of homosexuality, and it should be praised for not allowing its climactic courtroom scene to be the moral focus it probably would have been in another movie. Curiously, the hero of the film isn’t Wilde himself, although his courage is evident at the end, but his wife Constance, who stood by him during his affairs and frequent absences and then refused to change her name to preserve her own respectability after his trial. There is an interesting moment when Wilde’s lover forces Wilde to watch him with another man, and Wilde is evidently jealous and disturbed. We wonder if he realizes (as the film makes us realize) that this is the same thing he’s done to Constance? (His own words in Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) suggest that he may have suspected it: “London is full of women who trust their husbands. One can always recognize them. They look so thoroughly unhappy.”) Another heartbreaking subtext is how Wilde’s own selfish search for love permanently separates him from his children.
Brian Gilbert has directed Wilde with epic strokes that add resonance to his themes. The wide-screen cinematography is in itself a justification for the format, making most other wide-screen films seem self-indulgent by comparison. It’s a pleasure to look at. The acting is solid throughout, and although much has been made of Stephen Fry’s virtual incarnation of Wilde, Jude Law’s Bosie steals most of the scenes he’s in. The musical score is a primer on how to use music in a film–it’s beautiful and just about perfect. Most things considered, this is the kind of movie that makes you wonder why anyone would ever watch television.
I mentioned a warning earlier, and it’s worth consideration and debate. Wilde features several extremely sexual scenes, encompassing both intent and subsequent action. It can be argued that once a dramatist has shown sexual intent, the audience can then infer the consummation. When filmmakers continue to show the act itself, beyond prelude, the audience is forced into the role of voyeur; the viewer is manipulated into a reaction via a role here she might not feel comfortable or willing to play. This technique sometimes has artistic justification–reactions from offense to titillation might be crucial to dramatic impact. In this film, it’s not justified; the result is nearly pornographic. Unfortunately, for many people the sex will overpower the better aspects of the film; others will argue that those offended are “prudes.” I think the audience has a right to complain–it’s ill-used by these scenes. But don’t leave! If one is willing to consider the work as a whole, the film’s virtues will certainly outweigh other objections.
Finally, an epitaph:
“He left behind, as his essential contribution to literature, a large repertoire of jokes which survived because of their sheer neatness, and because of a certain intriguing uncertainty–which extends to Wilde himself–as to whether they really mean anything.” – George Orwell
January 6, 1999