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Men, Sex, and a Selfish Giant – Review of Wilde (1997)

2012 December 3
by lucinda matthews-jones

by Fern Riddell, (King’s College, London)

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“You shocked them. But the more frivolous you seem, the more serious you are, aren’t you?”

-Bosie to Oscar Wilde

Now, Oscar Wilde has been a love of mine since I read ‘A Picture of Dorian Grey’ during my A Levels. His style of writing, and his observations on the frailty of human interaction, is so delicate in its understanding that it will always be timeless. Wilde has often divided critics; there are those who think him frivolous, arrogant, and dismissive. Against them are the supporters who idolize his every word, holding Wilde up as the image of oppressed homosexuality, in world that didn’t accept or understand the human need to be loved. I fall somewhere between the two. For me, the story of Oscar Wilde always held a deep fascination, and the film of his life, ‘Wilde’ (1997), has been on my hit list to watch for quite sometime.

It’s a film that received rave reviews when it was first released, daring for its frank and open attitude towards depictions of gay sex and relationships, in a time when sex was severely regulated. It is superbly acted, with Stephen Fry in the title role, and stirringly supported by many who we would now consider to be the cream of male British acting royalty: Michael Sheen, Tom Wilkinson, Ioan Gruffudd, Jude Law – even a young Orlando Bloom appears as an eager rent boy! It seems to be one of the only period films from the 1990s that Colin Firth is not in. (But don’t worry, Elizabeth Bennett is here instead.)

The film opens with Wilde’s 1882 tour of America, a subject that has had some fascinating research in the last few years, primarily by Dr Michèle Mendelssohn (Oxford), and also Professor William Strong (UTB/TSC). Although the opening scenes are brief, Fry makes Wilde’s charisma and wit come to life with a gentleness that is almost heartbreaking, and removes any taint of arrogance that could be perceived in Wilde’s own work. This characterization remains constant throughout the film; Fry’s portrayal is utterly likeable, sincere and heartfelt. His early life is quickly established, his marriage, his devotion to his family, and his wife’s distance from the world of his work and intellectual company are all evident in the opening chapters. As is Wilde’s emerging sexuality, as he sleeps with a number of the beautiful young men in quick succession, breaking hearts and writing plays until the clocks stop and he is dumbfounded by the entry of the utter love of his life.

And it’s Jude Law, in all his pouting, angel-faced, early glory. He really is very good as the spoilt, damaged and possibly deranged ‘Bosie’ a.k.a Lord Alfred Douglas, the undeserving object of Oscar Wildes’ continual attention. Their relationship, and its impact on late Victorian society is, for me, one of the pivotal moments in the history of otherness and queer sexuality in Britian. While the theme of platonic Greek love, and also pederasty, is explored by both Wilde and his lovers as a means to examine in film how the social and intellectual elites discussed and understood their own sexuality in this period.

I found myself wanting to like Bosie, but totally unable too, as Law switched from innocent boy to arrogant brat on the flip of a coin. There’s an awful lot I like Jude Law for, Gattaca, eXistenZ, and, of course, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes’s. I like him in Wilde. I cannot, however, forgive him as Bosie for murdering one of my favorite moments from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Although his rendition of ‘Ah, leave me not to pine, alone, and desolate’, ties beautifully into the emotions of the scene, it is not, in any way, his finest moment. Here is the brilliant Linda Ronstadt’s rendition as recompense:

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And now to the Brothels! Oh, No! Vice! Indiscretion! Blackmail! And a rather brilliant aside to the sexual misadventures of the Prince of Wales abound, as we career steadily towards the trial and imprisonment that made Oscar Wilde so notorious. It is moving, saddening, and deeply shameful that this was how sexuality and sexual expression was treated by British society. Yet one of the joys of the film is that it doesn’t seek to preach to its audience, instead relying on the subtle performances of its cast to speak volumes about the degradation suffered by those whose only crime was to love another man.

Cleverly interwoven by Julian Mitchell’s wonderful script are numerous references and examples of Wilde’s work. His short story ‘The Selfish Giant’ is continually told via voice over, linking one chapter of the film to the next, often allowing Wilde’s own words to create within the new scene a tone and emotion not yet expressed by the characters on the screen. The recreation of late Victorian society is lavish and sumptuous in it’s decadence, displaying the divides between young and old, rich and respectable, men and women. Interestingly, women – so often the focus of nineteenth century set pieces – are almost entirely absent from the impact of the film. This is surprising as the characters are played by some of the strongest actresses we have: Vanessa Redgrave as Wilde’s mother, Zoe Wannamaker as Sphinx and of course, Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Benn…Constance Wilde. But they drift, decoratively, through the film – almost made genderless by their utter disinterest sexually for the films main protagonists. I don’t think this is a negative thing at all – far from it – it is possibly one of the best demonstrations of the divide between the worlds of men and women in the late Victorian/Edwardian periods. What place was there for women in this period, other than for procreation, if men found all they needed, intellectually, physically and emotionally, from other men? It is a frighteningly persuasive realization that is incredibly subtle in it’s presentation.

So does this film in anyway challenge our perception of Oscar Wilde and the history of homosexuality? While the iconography of a central hegemonic masculinity has existed since the age of antiquity, it was not until the 1970s that feminist theory introduced the arguments of multiple masculinities. The term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ was first put forward by R.W. Connell, and has since become a central ideology in masculine historical discourse. Adapted from her reading of Gramsci’s Marxism, Freud, Foucault, Sartre, structuralism, and post structuralism, Connell created the idea that hegemonic masculinity could be seen as a situation, which arose in history and could change history, based on the multileveled and multidimensional character of gender. By applying Baudrillard’s theory of ‘hyperreality’ to how visual culture interacts with masculinity, we can identify the constructive method in how gender is formed, as well as its fractured nature, clearly expressed by the domineering and bigoted character of Tom Wilkinson’s Marquess of Queensbury. Oscar Wilde, and the film of his life, challenges the ideas we have of hegemonic masculinity in the late Victorian period. It’s a brilliant rendering of ‘otherness’ and worth a look for anyone interested in sexuality, debate, and great acting.

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