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There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
Oscar Wilde may have regretted these words later in life. He was always being talked about - first for his witty, iconoclastic novels and plays, then for his homosexual dealings with young rent boys and Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas. These culminated in a public scandal and indecency trial which landed Wilde in jail for two years. He came out a shadow of his former self, poor and ill, leaving England for the more tolerant shores of France. He never wrote again.
|This is powerful stuff for a film-maker: a witty, intellectual outsider who charms and shocks the upper classes by his wit, then tragically falls from grace at the hands of the same people he once amused. It's a story of hypocrisy and intolerance... how society will accept difference as long as it's veiled. Wilde was Irish, intellectual, eccentric and gay, in no way entitled to a place in the upper classes except through their tolerance. When his differences were revealed too starkly, he was cast aside.
The title role in this film is played by Stephen Fry, familiar to most for his comedy roles on British television. Gay and theatrical himself, with the build for the part, he was simply born to be Wilde. In a recent interview, Fry remarked how he had always wanted to play this role, to give tribute to a life-long hero. Better still, to be part of a modern film about Wilde's life that could be as frank as necessary to tell its story. As Fry said, previous productions were so coy that you could think Wilde was sent to prison for patting boys' heads.
This biographical movie begins at a high point of Wilde's life, his successful tour of America. After returning to England and settling down with his wife Constance (Jennifer Ehle), he has his first gay sexual experience with a young friend, Robbie (Michael Sheen). This initiates a string of relationships which culminates in his affair with "Bosie" (Jude Law). Young, spoiled and demanding, Bosie is never an easy companion and Oscar finds it hard to meet his whims. When the two of them split up for a time, he does his best written work, but Bosie is soon back and fuming against his monstrous father, the Marquis of Queensberry (Tom Wilkinson). Foolishly, Wilde agrees to take out a defamation action over Queensberry's slurs about his and Bosie's relationship. The tables are soon turned and Wilde himself is in the dock, heading for imprisonment.
Fry does a wonderful job of portraying Wilde's wit, urbanity and ultimate naivete. The character is supremely confident in his intellect, and this is his fatal flaw. Wilde never grasps how society could misunderstand him and his notions of "Greek love", how they could turn so savagely on someone who has broken their behavioural rules. That someone who knew society so well could so read it so badly just adds to the tragic nature of the story.
To the end, Wilde is polite, civilised and just a little saddened by his treatment. Anyone who has suffered through being "different" to the norm will sympathise with Fry's Oscar Wilde. In our more tolerant modern world there is still the pain of being "other", and this film is a worthy reminder of that.
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|Just the facts:
Title: Wilde (1997)
|The Players: Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Vanessa Redgrave, Jennifer Ehle
|See: official site
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Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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