I’m almost surprised 1997’s Wilde hasn’t made it to Blu-ray in the UK before, but it’s now arrived, giving us an HD look at the biopic of legendary writer and wit Oscar Wilde, as played by Stephen Fry. At the beginning of the movie Oscar is already well-known and meets the pretty young Constance (Jennifer Ehle), whom he marries.
However, there is another side of him, initially brought out by Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen), that seeks the emotional and physical intimacy of men. Oscar begins to see it rather like the Greek ideal, where he is the older man, passing down knowledge to his ‘boys’, as well as sleeping with them. Then he meets the beautiful Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law), known as Bosie – and if you’ve ever seen pics of the real Bosie, he was very good looking – and the two fall for one another.
As Oscar’s career flourishes, he and Bosie find ways to be together, with many beginning to wonder whether the relationship is more than just platonic. That includes Bosie’s brutish father, the Marquess Of Queensberry (Tom Wilkinson), who his son loathes. After Queensberry begins to make it his mission to let people know he thinks Oscar is a ‘bugger’ who has corrupted his son, Wilde is convinced by Bosie that this is their chance to take the Marquess down by suing him for libel. However, this proves disastrous when it allows the Queensberry to produce evidence against Oscar, which could lead to his incarceration.
Wilde is well-made, handsomely mounted (on a much lower budget than the filmmakers manage to make it seem) and offers a fascinating insight into one of Britain’s most famous literary figures. It’s also about one of the first truly iconic moments in gay/bisexual history. After all, the word ‘homosexual’ was only about 25 years old when Wilde met Bosie, and society was only beginning to understand different sexualities as distinct entities – even then, it would be another 80 years until consenting sex between men was decriminalised.
However, Wilde does have its flaws, probably the greatest of which is that there is the air of it being as much a history lesson as a film. It’s a movie that wants to stick to the facts as much as possible, even if at times is affects the flow of the story. I can’t help but feel it’s admirable, but the film perhaps could have done with concentrating as much on the character depths of the people involved as the events they were involved with.
With its characters it does well with the broad strokes, from Bosie’s petulance to Oscar’s guilt over the effects of his actions on his wife, but it never quite gets under the surface. It also has some difficulty figuring out how the ‘gay’ subculture fits with the wider society. Back then It was undoubtedly very secretive but there’s a bit of a lack of context in the movie. For example, from our perspective it would seem obvious what Oscar and Bosie were up to as in the film they don’t exactly hide it. The expectations of Victorian society were very different though, allowing them to be more open than we might expect, but the movie never quite figures out how to show this, beyond saying it seemed more suspicious to many that Oscar associated with lower class young men than that he had a youthful aristocrat living with him.
Even so, it is very good, with a great central performance from Stephen Fry in a role it would have been easy to take over the top. The film also shows an impressive knack for casting young men who went on to become far better known than they’d been up until that point. Jude Law had made Shopping, but was still to break through in Hollywood. Likewise, Michael Sheen was still a newbie, while Ioan Gruffudd, Adam Garcia, James d’Darcy and Orlando Bloom all made their screen debuts in the movie (the last three in truly minuscule roles).
I have to admit that while certain aspects of Wilde frustrate me, it’s a movie that I’ve revisited numerous times. I think it’s because despite never fully getting to the heart of its characters, it is very good at laying the groundwork to bring out the pathos of the tragedy at the heart of Oscar’s tale – one of Britain’s greatest brought down purely because society could not comprehend ‘the love that dare not speaks its name’.
And the fact it is so interested in sticking to the facts means that even things you might think were made up are actually true, including the fact that the judge at Oscar’s trial really did call it the worst case he’d ever presided over.
You’ll also be pleased to hear that the film looks extremely good on Blu-ray, with a nice crisp picture. Indeed, if anything it’s a little too sharp, as it occasionally reveals the movie’s tricks to make it look like the 19th Century on a fairly low budget, but overall it looks great.
Overall Verdict: I still feel the ‘definitive’ Oscar Wilde biopic is yet to be made, but Wilde is a great history lesson and a very entertaining film, even if it sometimes misses the heart of its characters.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac