Stephen Fry is a treasure and it’s a privilege to see him perform in any circumstances.
To see him portray Oscar Wilde, an even greater genius and one of Fry’s personal heroes, should have been a delightful experience. Unfortunately, the result is disappointingly lifeless and generic.
I think the primary fact crippling this production was the filmmakers’ goal of presenting Wilde as 1) an ordinary man to whom we can all relate and 2) a tragic hero of gay liberation. Undoubtedly both of these elements are present in Wilde’s story, but the emphasis on his ordinariness in this production ultimately left him uninteresting, a passive character in his own life story, often at a loss as to what to say or do. Oscar Wilde was many things, but he was never uninteresting and never at a loss for words. The humanizing of a genius only works if we are shown the genius, at least a little bit — which this team has either forgotten, or deliberately declined, to do. Wilde’s conversational wit, his outlandish manner and costume, his ideas about interior decorating, his unprecedented celebrity, and most of all his writing, are all mentioned but barely shown. Fry has said “it’s very important that we don’t see him as this sort of peacock, this kind of posing, prancing queen,” and screenwriter Julian Mitchell mentions not wanting to pack the script with Wilde’s “greatest hits,” which is fair enough, but we’re left with no sense of scale, and no reason to care about him at all.
It’s typical that the film poster, featuring Fry as Wilde in this outrageous suit striding through the grumpy barristers, has been digitally altered to make the suit a supersaturated pink. With several openly gay folks involved in the production, one clear goal of the film was to reach contemporary gay audiences and connect Wilde to “the contemporary gay experience.” But on the other hand, he doesn’t wear anything so shocking in the film itself — the suit in that scene is actually a modest pale tan, and the scene isn’t particularly outrageous at all. The filmmakers are stuck with either cliché or ordinariness, both of which seem rather treasonous in a film about Wilde, of all people.
Fry is a captivating critic and speaker with a deep understanding of Wilde (see podcast #3) — indeed, watching him in the making-of featurettes and interviews is more fun than the film itself. That he as Wilde is so often forced to keep quiet and stare thoughtfully off-camera is a great waste. Young Jude Law is appropriately angelic in appearance and infantile in behavior.
The score, like the film itself, is too easy — standard Hollywood melodrama.
Oscar Wilde was certainly a man who loved men, but if that’s all he had been, we would not remember him today. That’s essentially all we’re shown here, and the result is forgettable. It’s not the film Oscar would have made.