Perhaps the biggest reason why the 2009 film of Dorian Gray is so disappointing is that Ben Barnes is probably the most suitable actor to play the role since Hurd Hatfield in the 1945 MGM version. Barnes might have been twenty-seven at the time of filming, but he looks younger and, perhaps more importantly, is both beautiful and contains a childlike innocence during much of the first half of the movie. If Hatfield had come across at fragile with his porcelain-like features, Barnes portrays Dorian as naïve – something I could never believe Hatfield to be, he seemed far too wicked for that. And in both versions of the story, the lead actor was relatively unknown – Hatfield particularly so, but the public was only aware of Barnes through his role as Prince Caspian in the Narnia series, and a jolly jape misfire of a Noel Coward play. And the public’s lack of familiarity with the lead actor can help with something like Dorian Gray. By the time Helmut Berger was cast in the 1970 film, he had already appeared in Visconti’s The Damned, and, after that, who could ever believe that Berger could be an innocent?
Unfortunately, the 2009 movie falls down in so many places that the potentially perfect casting of Barnes becomes almost immaterial. The opening of the film is a case in point, unable to convey through its CGI-laden visuals whether the audience should prepare for a horror movie or a fairy story. This is an issue that continues throughout the film, with even some of the acting (particularly Rachel Hurd-Wood as Sybil Vane) making audiences wonder if they are watching a Wilde adaptation or a Tim Burton movie. Ironically, a Burton take on Dorian Gray might be an interesting venture if Burton was feeling inspired that day, but here the visuals are too pretty, too clean (even in the sordid moments) and without the underlying wickedness that Burton is capable of bringing to such seemingly-innocent images.
But the film fails mostly because it dares to show us, repeatedly, just what Dorian’s sins are. We know very little of them in the book, or, indeed, in the Hatfield film, but here they take place before our very eyes. The issue here is that this is a mainstream film and, because of that, none of the sins appear particularly sinful – especially to a modern audience. I very much doubt that anyone watching the film is likely to faint with shock that Dorian has a threesome, or has sex with another man, or that he doesn’t mind a bit of S&M even if it means roughing up that pretty little face of his (albeit temporarily). Sure, he commits a murder too, but you only have to tune in to ITV3 every night to see half a dozen of those thanks to Midsummer Murders, Foyle’s War, and Poirot. Trying to shock audiences (or even to titillate them) in a 15-certificate movie through some images of fetishist sex is hardly going to make us realise just what an horrific fellow Gray has become, especially when Fifty Shade of Grey is more likely to make one giggle than get aroused.
It might work if it was a movie made by an independent filmmaker, with an appetite to come up with something more genuinely shocking, explicit or, at least, visually stimulating. But Ben Barnes with his shirt off kissing two women at the same time is hardly a startling, hedonistic existence in a world where you can do a search on Google and be shown all kinds of sexual activities that you never knew existed – and all because you were looking for the amount of calories in a bowl of corn flakes.
Hinting at Dorian’s sins would have made for a somewhat more mysterious, maybe more eerie, film. Even the decaying picture itself gets shown far too often for the changes to be remotely shocking – quite unlike the 1945 version where the colour insert of the decaying picture is in itself quite a jolt for the viewer near the end of the black and white film. The script itself is formulaic for the most part, and the special effects really not very special – check out the explosion at the end of the film. There are parts of the movie where it looks like an ITV Sunday night two-part adaptation, only with Colin Firth as Lord Henry instead of Jim Nettles.
Going by online reviews, many blame the film’s failings on Ben Barnes, but I would suggest that the film is bland and disappointing despite of him, rather than because of him. You can’t make a good film with a bad script, and that is exactly what this film has – from the underdeveloped characters to the pointless changes to the source text, including the introduction of a back story where Dorian was the victim of child abuse, which seemingly has no purpose in the narrative and no influence on the character.
Dorian Gray is, unfortunately, a highly frustrating if somewhat watchable mess, but with a TV series in development and another film version out this year, perhaps someone will get an adaptation of Wilde’s own novel right at some point in the near future.