Offbeat Movies

I love movies that are quirky and well made and well acted. Here you will find reviews of movies you may not have heard of (I will try to avoid commercial successes, but some of them are good) that caught my attention because they are thought-provoking, have interesting story lines, unique characters, and good acting.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Netflix’ Dorian Gray

Most book lovers will cringe when presented with the movie version of a book. There are a few exceptions. I am not sure if Netflix’ Dorian Gray is one of them or not.

Dorian is a pretty and naive young man who arrives in London to claim his inheritance. Aside from a few hazy flashbacks of violence at his Grandfather’s hands as a child and a talent for piano, we know nothing about his life before London - it is almost as if he didn’t have one.

Beautiful Dorian has been seized upon by artist Basil Hallward as a subject. Basil has just completed a portrait of Dorian, with which Dorian is enraptured. Basil is clearly obsessed with drawing and painting the young man, but Dorian is growing bored of being an artist’s model.

Enter Lord Henry (Harry) Wotton.

Harry, an atheist and hedonist, and liberally seasons the movie with Wilde’s witticisms. We get a measure of his character early on when he casually burns a rose petal in the candle flame: other pretty things should beware.

Harry sets out to corrupt Dorian as an experiment in human nature, beginning with gin and prostitutes. The movie isn’t full of gratuitous sex, but we get enough of a look into brothels and opium dens and see what was available to Londoners in the late 1800s. Especially Londoners with money, social standing and good looks, who prove to be able to get away with a lot that people who are older, uglier and poorer would not - like schlepping dead bodies in trunks across London in the middle of the night.

And not only does Dorian have looks, youth and money—he has a magical portrait which absorbs the effects of any sin, crime or damage. If Dorian cuts himself, the portrait bleeds; if he is cruel, his face remains serene and mild, but the portrait changes; Dorian does not age, but his portrait turns into the likeness Riff Raff on a bad day. When Dorian commits an act of callousness and cruelty, his portrait reacts with signs of corruption in the visceral sense: a worm wriggles out of the corner of his painted eye and falls to the floor, where Dorian stomps on it in disgust (a really great scene). Dorian sees the magical portrait as carte blanche to commit any sin, any crime, and take any risk.

Harry sets out to corrupt Dorian, but the student soon outstrips the teacher, progressing from a youthful love affair with a girl far below his social standing, to opium, sadomasochism, and finally murder. He leaves England to seek sensations and pleasures that cannot be had on the sceptered isle.

Twenty years later when Dorian returns his friends are shocked that he has not aged. It seems that the portrait cannot absorb everything, however. Maybe it’s full. Dorian is bitter. He tells Harry, “Pleasure is not the same thing as happiness.” Dorian sees ghosts and is dogged by a would-be assassin.

Just as Harry sought to corrupt Dorian, Harry’s now-grown daughter, a New Woman of 1910’s, sets out to save him and Dorian resolves to be good. But is that enough to redeem his soul?

So, here we have an entertaining movie, well acted, interesting characters, great period sets and costumes. Dorian is corrupted by the father and redeemed by the daughter. Evildoers are punished; the innocent escape. It has a nice story arc, and a satisfying ending.

And then there is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. This books suffers from too many words (to paraphrase the Archduke in Amadeus). A liberal seasoning of Oscar Wilde’s paradoxes and witticisms is entertaining; page after page of them is like being bludgeoned with the OED. Wilde proves himself a playwright rather than a novelist: his scenes are either all dialogue or monologue, or they are stage direction. All in all I would rather watch the movie.


Wilde’s book has insight that the movie lacks, and which makes the movie amateur by comparison. In the movie Dorian learns that debauchery is bad and that you have to be good to deserve the good things in life. Very black and white, very Puritan, and not very thoughtful.

In the book Dorian’s crimes are not those of debauchery. Oh, he screws around and smokes opium, but that isn’t the point. His sins are in the way he treats other people. He is callous and cruel. He ruins young girls and leaves them to a life of prostitution (it is Victorian England, remember). His male friends (with the notable exceptions of Basil and Harry) are shunned by society, estranged from their families, broken, and some commit suicide. And through it all Dorian remains unscathed and unrepentant. It is his constant and selfish search for pleasure and his refusal to own his reprehensible actions that leads to him to self-destruct.

Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray gives us a portrait of someone with borderline personality disorder in a time when that term wasn’t even coined. Netflix' movie Dorian Gray is a morality play we’ve seen before.


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