Internationally famous for his scandalously funny, thought-provoking works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest, and An Ideal Husband, British poet, author, and playwright Oscar Wilde conflicted on many fronts with his society's restrictive ideas about homosexuality, morality, self-expression, and literary censorship. While performances of his hit plays were packed with cheering, applauding audiences who enjoyed his witty, biting dialogue and parodies of conventional manners, the same people who gave him his recognition as an author turned on him for daring to live, as well as write, outside the bounds of what was accepted.
Based on the award-winning biography of Wilde by Richard Ellman, director Brian Gilbert's film Wilde sets out to do justice to a highly complicated figure who became famous, then notorious, and finally once again famous for both his writing and his personal life. The result of Gilbert's directing, Julian Mitchell's screenplay, and the outstanding performances of a strong cast is an extremely well-done, polished film.
We're introduced to Wilde in the middle of his life, but thanks to Gilbert's skilful directing, we immediately are able to figure out who's who among his many friends and relatives. From this point on, the story proceeds chronologically to the end of Wilde's life. With any biographical piece, the challenge is always in the balance between telling an interesting story and being faithful to narrating the events of the subject's life. In the case of Wilde, the screenwriter has shown a skilful hand in selecting incidents that serve the dual purpose of illuminating Wilde's life while at the same time drawing the viewer into the story. The end result is that Wilde is a highly engaging film from beginning to end.
I believe that I've already mentioned that Wilde is a highly polished film, but it's worth saying again. As befits a film that deals with a great artist, the film is lovely, with excellent cinematography and wonderful costumes that perfectly re-create the atmosphere of British society in the late 19th century. The film also calls on Wilde himself: at various points throughout the film, excerpts from his writing are read as voice-overs, helping to set the tone of the film and deepen the characterizations. It's a very effective technique; in particular, I found the use of one of Wilde's fairy tales, "The Selfish Giant," to be especially poignant.
The role of Oscar Wilde is far from an easy one: he must be made convincing as a husband, a doting father, a "man about town," an artist, and an individual committed to expressing his own true nature, even when that nature ran contrary to what was accepted in society. While in earlier times Wilde's relationships would most likely have been presented in black and white terms, in this film director Gilbert has striven to bring out the nuances and complexities of Wilde's feelings for his wife, family, friends, and lovers. In this difficult role, Stephen Fry turns in an outstanding performance. Though Wilde was condemned by "polite society" as morally corrupt, Fry's portrayal of the character shows him as a remarkably sensitive man, attuned to the pleasures of life and art, showing the utmost individuality and disregard for convention in his writing and his public behavior, yet also easily led – too easily led – by those on whom he had bestowed his unconditional love.
In support of Fry's superb performance in the title role, a number of fine actors round out the cast: in addition to Jude Law, who appears as Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglass, the highlights of the cast include Michael Sheen (as Robbie Ross), Jennifer Ehle (as Constance Wilde), Vanessa Redgrave (as Wilde's mother), and Tom Wilkinson (as the Marquess of Queensbury). There are also additional minor characters rounding out the scenes, but throughout the film, director Gilbert handles them well, so that it's easy to keep track of the characters.
The one weakness of the film is, ironically, tied inextricably to one of its main strengths: at times it's difficult to understand Wilde's motivations or his relationship with the mercurial-tempered Bosie. Yet this is also what makes the character interesting: he's not a one-dimensional or easy to understand figure, but rather a complex, conflicted man who had difficulty governing his own impulses.
Wilde is a film that demands to be appreciated visually, for its outstanding cinematography, as well as emotionally and intellectually. Unfortunately, the DVD transfer of Wilde doesn't quite do it justice. There's some fairly heavy edge enhancement apparent here, which creates visible haloes around edge of objects, as well as a moderate amount of noise throughout the image.
On the bright side, the widescreen 2.35:1 image is anamorphically enhanced, and otherwise looks good. The color scheme leans toward soft colors, often with the light adding a golden tinge to the image; everything appears to be accurately represented in the transfer, from the various colors of clothing to flesh tones.
It would have been nice for a film that's as visually rich as Wilde to have a soundtrack with equal richness, but the Dolby 2.0 track is merely adequate. The dialogue is occasionally not as distinct as it could have been. Otherwise, the soundtrack seems to be clean.
Wilde lives up to its "Special Edition" billing with a full slate of special features. An audio commentary track with the filmmakers is provided, along with two substantial and interesting featurettes. "Simply Wilde" is a 25-minute featurette which includes interviews with director Brian Gilbert and starring actor Stephen Fry, focusing on the character of Oscar Wilde and his presentation in the film version. The second featurette, "Still Wild About Wilde," was made specifically for the DVD edition of the film. At 55 minutes long, it offers ample scope for an in-depth look at the making of the movie, with extensive cast and production staff interviews. Both featurettes are informative and well-made, offering a definite insight into the historical figure of Wilde and the making of the 1997 film.
Other special features include filmographies, trailers, and a photo montage. The disc also has on DVD-ROM the complete material from the official Oscar Wilde website, which offers some additional material on Wilde, his life and works, and the people behind the film. The menus are attractive and easy to navigate.
Wilde is a finely-crafted film that boasts superb acting in both leading and supporting roles; it will be enjoyable both for viewers who are unfamiliar with Wilde and those who already know a great deal about his life and work, as I did. With its presentation on a DVD that offers reasonable, if not outstanding, transfer quality and top-notch special features, I highly recommend seeing Wilde.