Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Not Wilde Enough

By Angie Drobnic

JULY 13, 1998:  The most recent film about Oscar Wilde tempts me to go on about how the feature film is such an poor genre for biography. But I've discussed this before; suffice it to say that cramming a life into a two-hour movie presents problems. Nevertheless, Wilde does an admirable though flawed job of presenting a complex portrait of a complex man: the Victorian author Oscar Wilde. Wilde is the crest of a tidal wave of new works that deconstruct him. Most notably, there's The Judas Kiss (starring Liam Neeson as Wilde) playing on Broadway, along with a plethora of new theater productions, books and magazine articles. This decade marks the hundredth anniversary of Wilde's most notable achievements, including his notorious trial for being gay.

This film, however, begins with Oscar's marriage and the birth of his two sons. The scenes between Wilde and his family are shown directly and sincerely. There is no seething resentment between Wilde and his wife Constance; instead, there is genuine love and affection. Wilde had his first gay experience rather late in life, and by the end of the movie's first half hour, he has met the man who will lead him down the path to his arrest and imprisonment: Lord Alfred Douglas, or, as he is more commonly known, Bosie.

Bosie is usually portrayed as the great villain in Wilde's life, the beautiful young man who forced Wilde's sexuality into the public eye as a means of infuriating his brutish father. But actor Jude Law imbues Bosie with a touching humanity. Law saves Bosie, and Wilde itself, by portraying the character as a wounded soul, human and hurt (and if you like Law in Wilde, you might want to check out Gattaca, an underrated film in which Law plays the most interesting part). American audiences will most likely remember Stephen Fry from the BBC show "A Bit of Fry and Laurie" or the film Peter's Friends; he has long been considered the perfect Brit to play Wilde and does so here with sensitivity and aplomb. And when Oscar goes to jail, Fry portrays prison's devastation on the man keenly and viscerally.

But even in the scenes of Oscar's imprisonment, the film itself seems to gloss over the seriousness of the ordeal with a paparazzi-like voyeurism. If the film fails on any front it's in treating Oscar Wilde as almost too much of a bon vivant and not emphasizing his stature as a writer. While Wilde undoubtedly was one of the first real celebrities--as in famous for being famous--of the modern English-speaking world, his work too often gets short shrift. His most famous work, the play "The Importance of Being Earnest," today seems like a direct precursor to "Seinfeld," with its love of verbal sparring and improbable coincidences. Academics have long contended that Wilde is much more subversive than given credit for, and "Earnest" is arguably replete with coded references to the joys of gay life. But Wilde seems more intent on showing Wilde as a fanciful character who came to a tragic end, rather than as a complex artist who shook Victorian England's mores and morals to its foundation with both his life and his work.

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