Oliver Parker’s Dorian Grey is a slow burning thriller with sparks of horror that builds up into one quick firework. Then the light fades.
For too long the North American audience has been beaten over the head with pop psychological and very little history. I’m saddened to see in many reviews I’ve read after I watched the movie that everyone seems to have completely missed the point. Parker’s Dorian Grey is a literary masterpiece in the form of a movie with much needed updated visual effects.
Dorian Grey From a Different Era
There’s been several other movies based on The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde, going as far back as 1945. All are tame which is understandable considering the times. Often the movies, either big screen or small screen, were dependent on acting and psychological elements to support the story. The 1945 movie is a black and white classic, but feels outdated. I don’t fault any of the other versions of Dorian Grey. I’m sure they did what they could within the limitations of the era.
Before Parker’s Dorian Grey, various adaptations focused too much on the psychology of a narcissist and sexual freedom. However, the story was never about sexuality or psychology. It’s about love and how one young man can take the concept of self-love way too far.
The Original Dorian Grey and Greek Myth
Oscar Wilde wrote the novel during a time of Victorian sexual repression and gothic literature. Pop psychological didn’t exist in the 19th century. The Portrait of Dorian Grey is based on the Ancient Greek myth, Narcissus and Echo. Of course, the Ancient Greeks had a tendency to romanticize everything, including tragic tales. The Greek myth is a tragedy that provides a mythological explanation for the origin of an echo.
A beautiful young man saw his reflection in the water one day and fell so completely in love with himself that he became blind to everyone around him. A wood nymph fell in love with the beautiful Narcissus, but he wouldn’t betray his love for himself. Spurned, the nymph went to a cave, wasted away until only her voice was left, and became an echo.
In the 21st century we call that a narcissistic sociopath, but I urge everyone to ignore psychology in order to appreciate Parker’s Dorian Grey.
Oscar Wilde took the Greek myth and turned it into a novel. As typical of a writer, it starts with a ‘what if’ question. What if Narcissus was a man living right now (the 19th century), in London, England, and introduced to the whims of high society?
In Wilde’s novel, Narcissus is a young man named Dorian Grey who sees his picture for the first time and falls so completely in love with himself that he’s willing to barter his soul in exchange for eternal youth. He stays young and beautiful no matter how many years has passed. He can do anything he wants for his own pleasure without suffering consequences.
His picture, a painting that’s hidden away in an attic, takes the damage from years of self-abuse. It becomes old, twisted, and poisonous.
The Picture of Dorian Gray has a simple, old moral. What goes around, comes around, and always bites you in the ass. Yet Wilde’s novel is dark, romantic, and tragic, because that was the 19th century.
A Fresh, New Dorian Grey
Parker’s Dorian Grey is so true to the original novel and the Greek myth it’s based on. It’s not a psychological thriller. No rapid action sequences. No pop psychology based on current global politics. The movie burns slowly until the flame is snuffed out.
Ben Barnes enters the movie as a silly, wide-eyed and young Dorian Grey. A bit scarred and alone, yet approaches his sudden inherited mansion with such innocence that he seems lost and adrift in the wonder of so much wealth.
Lord Henry Wotton, played by Colin Firth, immediately takes Dorian under his wing and shows him how to give in to hedonistic pleasures without suffering consequences. Although Ben Barnes is true to the character from beginning to end, it’s Colin Firth’s performance that steals the show.
Visiting prostitutes and enjoying imported cigarettes are just a way for the wealthy to pass their time. But there’s always consequences, even for the privileged. Dorian learns that lesson the hard way, through murder and cruelty. Can sweet and innocent Dorian Grey redeem himself in the midst of such immorality, self-indulgent wealth, and the loss of his soul?
The real underlying conflict Dorian faces isn’t just the fact he can’t age, it’s about the fact he can’t mature. He can’t let go of his first true love – himself.
Yet, Narcissus is only one part of the story. The entire movie is Echo.
“Narcissus and Echo” by Fred Chappell
Shall the water not remember Ember
my hand’s slow gesture, tracing above of
its mirror my half-imaginary airy
portrait? My only belonging longing
is my beauty, which I take ache
away and then return as love of
of teasing playfully the one being unbeing
whose gratitude I treasure is your
moves me, I live apart heart
from myself, yet cannot not
live apart. In the water’s tone, stone?
that shining silence, a flower Hour
whispers my name with such slight light
moment, it seems filament of air fare
the world become cloudswell well.
Dorian Grey is available on Netflix and Hulu.
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