“It is monstrous how people say things behind one’s back that are perfectly true”
Based on Richard Ellman’s biography, Brian Gilbert’s 1997 film Wilde saw Stephen Fry take on the eponymous role in a sweeping biopic slash drama which stretches over the last 18 years of his life. Beginning with his return to London from a trip to America and ripping speedily through his marriage to Jennifer Ehle’s kindly Constance and the birth of their two children, it is his relationship with family friend Robbie Ross that leads him into a world of sexual discovery. He finds there Jude Law’s impossibly handsome Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas and falls head over heels into a tempestuous relationship, but in a society where homosexuality is illegal and propriety is everything, a happy ending is far from likely.
Fry makes an appealing Wilde, though one shorn of much of the acerbic nature one might imagine he had, he is a gentle father – telling his own story of The Selfish Giant acts as a clever layer of extra commentary – and he brings an almost avuncular warmth to the part. Jude Law’s Bosie is a revelation though, a serious reminder of his talents as an actor, with a capriciousness that is seductively alluring and yet criminally irresponsible. As Wilde seeks to lay the blame at the door of Bosie’s domineering father the Marquess of Queensbury, he ignores the knife-edge that their relationship is balanced on with devastating consequences.
The supporting cast is deliciously drawn from the vast wells of Great British talent: Zoë Wanamaker makes the kind of fag-hag one dreams about having, Vanessa Redgrave is compassionate and strong as Lady Speranza, Oscar’s mother and Tom Wilkinson and Gemma Jones are fearsomely effective as Bosie’s parents, indeed their own troubled family dynamic seems rich enough to make a film of its own. Michael Sheen and Ioan Gruffydd are lovers of Wilde’s, a glistening bare-chested Adam Garcia pops up, and the film also marks debut cinematic appearances for Orlando Bloom and James D’Arcy.
But caught between the poles of informed biopic and swirling emotional drama, the film always leaves a slight sense of unfulfilled potential. So much happens and so quickly, especially in the earlier parts of the film when his marriage is rushed through at high speed – the dynamic between him and Constance is fascinating but largely under-developed. And the rate with which Gilbert skips through the non-Bosie details, and many of them are included in here sometimes unnecessarily, gives little time for reflection on the events portrayed.
Once we reach the trial, the film finally slows down and does a grand job in staging the vindictive Queensbury’s legal attack on Wilde, allowing time for the prevailing societal attitudes to be exposed for what they are and for the writer himself to express himself fully in the most eloquent of manners. Fry’s gentle intelligence here feels a perfect fit yet as the film wends its way to a sombre finish, there’s not quite the emotional impact that one might have expected from the drama it is determined to be.
But for all my caveats, it is still an enjoyably watchable film whose over-ambition is admirable rather than anywhere near fatal.