Sunday, 3 January 2010

Blu Ray preview: Dorian Gray

If your heart sinks at the prospect of the return of 'Dancing On Ice' on ITV and a brand new vote! vote! vote! dancing competition on the BBC and you can't stomach wading through all that festive telly you stored on your hard-drive (other TV recording devices are available) for "when there's nothing else on" allow Stuff to harry you in the direction of the DVD/Blu Ray release of a fabulous, underrated gem of a movie which drifted onto the big screen last year to not a great deal of acclaim or interest and which is really worth tracking down and giving a spin which it hits the shelves in the UK on 18th January. I'm talking about 'Dorian Gray', director Oliver Parker's atmospheric and stylish adaptation of the classic Oscar Wilde novel of decadence, immorality and the ultimate Faustian pact with the Devil.

Curse me as a heathen but I'm not hugely familiar with Wilde's original work. Yes, I've seen bits of various TV and movie adaptations over the years (it's one of those stories which is always ripe for a reworking) so I came to this latest movie not knowing much of the detail of the story and therefore not setting myself up to be outraged if favourite bits went missing or new scenes were invented just for the hell of it. Broadly speaking I know what the story's all about; a vain young pleasure-seeker holds back the march of Time by secreting a picture of himself as a youth in an attic so the image can age as he remains timeless and youthful. Parker - and screenwriter Toby Finlay - have taken this familiar source material, cast an unlikely Hollywood teen heart-throb in the lead role and given the story a contemporary makeover (whilst largely retaining the Victorian setting) which, remarkably, remains true to the style and flavour of the novel in a movie spectacularly unlike any of the vapid blockbusters which trundle out of the Hollywood movie factory.

So here's the score. Young, sallow Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes from 'Prince Caspian') arrives in Victorian London and moves into the family home after his affluent father dies. He's quickly introduced to - and corrupted by - the seedy side of London society by his mentor Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth - in a good movie at last!). Dorien's youthful likeness is captured in an elaborate portrait which hangs above his hearth until Dorian finds the portrait is changing as he himself does not. Determined to maintain his young hedonistic lifestyle Dorian hides the painting away from prying eyes and his friends and lovers age all around him, Dorian remains young and vigorous. But eventually his past starts to catch up with him and when Dorian falls in love with Wotton's grown-up daughter Emily he finds himself face-to-face with his own redemption...and his own destiny.

'Dorian Gray' is a smart, gripping and powerful movie. Parker has wisely decided not to dumb down the source material; the pace is sometimes stately, the mood relentlessly unfashionable and whilst the initially off-putting casting of Ben Barnes as Dorien looks as if it's a nod in the direction of the 'Twilight' audience the actor quickly defies expectation by creating a Dorien who is at first wide-eyed and naive before becoming ruthless and gauche until he eventually becomes a dead-eyed, haunted and exhausted young man who has lived too long and experienced too much. Firth's on top form as Wotton (despite sporting one of the dodgiest beards in cinema history) and the cast is dotted with familiar British thesps like Douglas Henshell, Fiona Shaw, Pip Torrens, Jo Woodcock and Emilia Fox. Beautifully filmed and with stunning photography and set design, the movie evokes Victorian and later early twentieth century London without going over the top visually and the only real concession to a modern sensibility is the rather silly snarling CGI portrait which does jar with what is otherwise a mature and intelligent and above all respectful adaptation of one of the oft-ignored classics of the genre.

The themes of 'Dorian Gray' are as relevant now as they were when Wilde wrote the novel - possibly even moreso. With today's popular culture still drearily obsessed with five-minute celebrity and larging it and just generally having a good time and to Hell with anything else, 'Dorian Gray' is a cautionary, if fanciful, tale which retains its ability to fascinate and terrify in equal measure. Above all else this is a damn fine movie which really should find its natural home and audience on DVD or Blu Ray.

The Disc: This looks just sublime on Blu Ray. It's not a riot of colour, of course, but it captures the starkness of the era it's set in with its washed-out, sepia tones and Blu Ray really accentuates the sumptuous sets and costumes. Unexceptional extras include a bog-standard 'making of' which consists of various talking heads discussing Wilde and the book rather than the film, production featurettes, deleted scenes and a reel of bloopers, one of which - a little girl extra in a piano recital scene who can't help waving at the camera as it pans along the crowd is amongst the funniest I've ever seen. Priceless.

'Dorian Gray' is released on DVD and Blu Ray in the UK on 18th January 2010

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