New adaptation of Oscar Wilde classic is a flat, shallow exploration of the corrupting influence of social media
A new British film version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is out now, putting Gray’s Faustian bargain into the world of social media. This time around, Gray’s portrait doesn’t appear on a canvas—he sells his soul to be a social media influencer. He pimps his pretty face for more likes and followers on YouTube and Instagram. It’s an intriguing premise that ends up committing the worst sin of any Wilde adaptation: being boring.
Fionn Whitehead’s Dorian Gray is appropriately dreamy-eyed and handsome, but that’s pretty much all he is. An otherwise fairly average college boy who mopes around his tiny, cluttered dorm room. Barely-seen Basil Hallward, the painter who captures Dorian on canvas, and Lord Harry Wotten, a Black fop clad in a cravat and a smoking jacket, dote on him. The film explores the source material’s subtle homoerotic overtones, which works since that was exactly the kind of thing that got Wilde into trouble. But the film’s general incoherence and weak visual sense betray this postmodern twist on the story.
We open and close with framing interviews with some of the people who knew Dorian Gray, though the film, in some cases, doesn’t make clear their relationships to him. The problem with dramatizing Gray in the film is that he isn’t necessarily interesting in and of himself; he’s a pretty blank slate onto which everyone else in the story projects their own desires and interests. That makes Gray far less interesting onscreen than on the page. In a novel, things like poetic language and epigrams, a Wilde specialty which the movie perpetually uses, in a knee-jerk way, can patch up holes in drama or characterization. It doesn’t always work that way in film.
The subplot concerns the actress Sybil Vane, who has a poetry-filled Instagram account and little else. The film supposedly sets up Gray’s interest in her as one of his redeeming features, since he’s otherwise more or less a human vanity mirror, but this storyline ends up going nowhere. Gray and Vane are sort of involved (it’s not necessarily clear how) and Gray’s callous response to Sybil’s onstage crackup precipitates her Ophelia-like fall into suicidal despair. It’s supposed to show how corrupted Gray has become, but the plotline falls flat.
As does the potential for an effective visual expression of Gray’s inner depravity. The actual picture of Gray’s many misdeeds is an important part of the story, so why not go all in with visual effects? Other adaptations made the titular painting, which records all of Gray’s inner corruption and vice, as vividly grotesque as possible. Dorian gradually gets some smears of dark makeup on his cheeks as he becomes a baby-faced, black-clad YouTube personality with a growing number of followers, monotonously railing against Covid restrictions.
The film’s most effective moments come when Gray’s network connection starts to spaz out and his ugly but true face suddenly intervenes during his increasingly paranoid rants, but that kind of jarring effect is all there is to make the point. This digitized portrait doesn’t rise to Wilde’s supremely decadent vision of beauty for sale and ends up wasting an intriguing premise that ends up being as flat as an empty computer screen.