So I made some friends of mine watch Wilde last night. And they are still my friends, which is good, though it was touch and go for a while.
Ye Gods, what a dreadful film. I mean, no, it wasn’t dreadful, that’s not fair. I have, after all, happily relished such cinematic masterpieces as Drive Angry, Van Helsing and Wild Wild West. It’s not so much that Wilde is dreadful so much as it’s … not very good, though Stephen Fry is adorable, as ever, and Jude Law is so beautiful I think anyone would willingly serve 2 years hard labour for him.
I was grotesquely annoying to watch it with, being inclined to pedantically pick fault, although I think it’s problems were more to do with misrepresentation than inaccuracy. It was very much of the Saint Oscar discourse, which made it rather dreary. And, for a film about a chap rather famously persecuted for being gay, shockingly heteronormative. I mean the sleazy underworld of homosexual London into which Bosie drags Oscar is contrasted vividly against pastel scenes of idyllic family life – and portrayed as being very much secondary to his love for his children and the concept of family (never mind the woman part of the question). I don’t know if it’s actually true but I seem to remember some letter of Wilde’s in which he said something like that he saw himself as having been married three times in his life, once to a woman and twice to men. So, really, the thing that people seem really unwillingly or unable to accept is that Bosie and Oscar were in a ‘real’ (and valid) relationship.
I suppose what I found interesting (interesting in the sense of fucking depressing) is that Wilde, as it currently stands, sort of intersects nicely between Victorian homophobia and modern homophobia. I mean he essentially spends the whole film LOOKING SAD. He LOOKS SAD when Robbie Ross seduces him. He LOOKS SAD at Constance. He LOOKS SAD when Bosie bonks him. He LOOKS SAD when Bosie takes him shopping for rentboys. He LOOKS SAD when Bosie goes at it with rent boys. He LOOKS SAD when being convicted of gross indecency but at least he has a reason to by then. But even if we don’t accept as absolute truth the likelihood of Wilde shagging everyone he could conceivably be argued to have shagged … he was still an adult and responsible participant in his own life, and as much an enthusiastic fucker of rentboys as Bosie.
In a strange sort of way it half-reminded me of the portrayal of Inara in Firefly. I love Firefly, by the way, to squidgy pieces of joy, dodgy gender politics aside. But I remember re-watching it with H a while back and suddenly remarking: “Inara … not very sexy for a spacehooker, is she?” This has nothing to do with Morena Baccarin, who is utterly exquisite (I especially love her EVIL ALIEN look with the short hair).
But whenever Inara is shown doing her actual job she tends to be lying there with a beatific smile while some dude gets on with it above. Because, y’know, heaven forefend she would actually enjoy sex. And I know she’s meant to be this spiritualised uber-whore who empowers men to be better men and all this crap. But it really does flag up the extent to which we STILL unconsciously associate participative and enthusiastic sexuality with corruption or moral iniquity.
And Wilde is no exception. Maybe I’m being horrendously uncharitable but there is a part of me that wonders if part of the reason they were so eager to distance Wilde from any actual sexual behaviour was that … if he went about having a jolly time with (occasionally under-aged) boys people might be inclined to think he deserved everything he got. Ouch face. I mean, I guess you could make a rather effective Venn diagram for The Problem of Portraying Wilde:
So essentially you’re left with a film in which you might (only semi-uncharitably) say the moral crux is: good sort of gay (someone witty and lovely and charming at parties) is unfairly imprisoned for being the bad sort of gay (someone who actually enjoys sleeping with men). That’s another subtlety of the Wilde Case that tends to get overlooked: he wasn’t innocent (and it shouldn’t be fucking necessary to portray him as innocent). He was guilty of everything they charged him with – they accused him of being a sodomite and he WAS a sodomite. But he WAS the victim of an unspeakable injustice. Legally the Wilde trial is evidence of the law doing its job; morally, of course, is quite another question.
On the other hand, I enjoyed some pleasing cameos from just about every English actor ever. And there’s a very brief appearance from John Gray, for whom I have something of a personal fondness. I’m not exactly keen on his poetry but he has a fascinating story. He was a working class boy with an abusive father who essentially yanked him out of school for fear it was turning him effeminate and apprenticed him to a metalsmith (a pretty harsh trade by all accounts). And yet Gray still somehow managed to give himself the education and a manners of a gentleman, enough to be accepted into Wilde’s circles of privileged decadents and aesthetes in the 1890s. It probably didn’t hurt that he was reputedly the most beautiful man in London. He had a torrid affair with Wilde (but didn’t everyone) and went a bit odd in later life – well I don’t know, if ‘odd’ is quite fair. He converted to Catholicism, became a priest? Wrote may just be the maddest book in the English language (Park). And yet lived with his lover (chaste lover?) until they both died in 1934. I guess I should do a bit more reading.
But in the movie he’s played, fleetingly, by Horatio Hornblower… and wearing THE WORST HAT IN THE WORLD.
You think I jest? I apologise, by the way, for the quality of the image, oddly enough pictures of Ioan Gruffudd wearing THE WORST HAT IN THE UNIVERSE are rather thin on the ground so I had to snip it from the Spanish dub of Wilde currently available on youtube.