Wilde (review)

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Oscar, Oscar, Oscar

As a certified Heartless Bitch, I gotta love a man who said “There is no sin except stupidity.” Whether he uttered that before or after his 1895 trial for “gross indecency” (i.e. homosexuality), Oscar Wilde had to be all too aware of the irony.

I’ve always been fascinated by Wilde, as a writer and as a personality, and I was hoping to get some new insight into his beliefs, motives and actions from Wilde. As enjoyable as the film was, and as much as I loved seeing Stephen Fry in the title role, I was a little disappointed. Wilde keeps itself at a remove from its passionate, flamboyant subject, and kept me from gaining any new understanding.
Family friend Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen) is the first man to seduce Oscar. To Robbie’s dismay, however, Oscar is soon enchanted by a handsome Oxford undergraduate, Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law), nicknamed “Bosie,” and begins a relationship with the capricious and destructive young man that will eventually be his downfall. Oscar — who is married with small children — returns again and again to the manipulative Bosie, and we’re never quite sure why. And when Bosie’s violent and unloving father, Lord Queensberry (Tom Wilkinson from The Full Monty), slanders Oscar by publicly calling him (as well as his son) a sodomite, Oscar elects to take Queensberry to court for Bosie’s sake — and of course it is Oscar’s morals that are put on trial.

Oscar Wilde had everything to lose from what amounted to a public admission of homosexuality — he was a successful novelist and playwright, he had a wife and children whom he did love and would only be hurt by his disgrace, and he faced (and eventually was sentenced to) years of hard labor in a Dickensian British jail. I wish the film had dwelt a little more on what drove Oscar to stand by the frequently insulting and often violent Bosie when the stakes where so very high.

Almost as interesting as the film itself is the sudden blossoming of interest in Wilde. Two stage plays about him are on in New York right now — the Off Broadway Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and Broadway’s The Judas Kiss (with Liam Neeson as Wilde). And a year or two ago there was a Broadway production of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, which I had the luck to see. I was struck by how relevant the play still is. A story of blackmail, sexuality, and hypocrisy, An Ideal Husband could easily have substituted its Victorian characters for the players in the Whitewater scandal and made perfect sense.

The easy answer to the rising popularity of Oscar Wilde and his work might be the similarities between his fight for dignity a century ago and that of the gay community today — our society hasn’t come very far from the hypocrisy of the Victorians.

But I think people are discovering — or rediscovering — that Wilde is timeless and timely in the same way that Shakespeare is. I’m sure centuries from now, The Importance of Being Earnest will still be a theatrical standby.

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