"In this life there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants. The other is getting it."
The personification of paradox, Oscar Wilde rose to glorious literary heights in the latter part of the 19th century only to sink under scandal immediately after his greatest success, The Importance of Being Earnest, in 1895. Due to "the love that dare not speak its name," Wilde was imprisoned for "gross indecency," from which he never fully recovered, unless you count his late twentieth century literary comeback and subsequent status as social martyr. Now a true icon, Wilde recently has resurged into literary prominence, and received numerous biographical treatments, including Brian Gilbert's film, Wilde.
Based on Richard Ellmann's definitive biography, the film follows Oscar Wilde (Stephen Fry) during the height of his popular acclaim, through his growing awareness of his sexuality, and through his spectacular downfall. Towards the end of the Victorian Age, extreme formality was still intact and homosexuality was a crime in England. That didn't keep Wilde from causing titters to knowing intellectuals when poking fun of English pretension while real insiders could catch subtle allusions to homosexuality. Certainly, England was home to about the same proportion of homosexuals as it is today, but by necessity gay men had to remain extremely discrete and closeted to avoid being locked up.
The film opens during Wilde's lecture tour in a small Colorado mining town, where sweaty working men listen fervently to Wilde's witticisms—he is quite the rage all across America for his genius and social commentary, very much akin to the fanfare that accompanied Mark Twain around the same time. Upon returning Wilde takes a new bride (Jennifer Ehle) and they soon have children. Oscar's "ordinary" life as family man takes an abrupt detour when houseguest Robbie (Michael Sheen) comes on to him, and suddenly Oscar feels like "a city that's been under siege for twenty years, and suddenly the gates are thrown open."
Oscar might have continued to lead a discreet double life, had he not run into Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas (Jude Law), who is some fifteen years his junior. It's love/lust at first site on Oscar's part while Bosie seems more infatuated with the idea of being seen with such a famous artist—the most obvious scene occurring at a restaurant where Bosie seeks a prominent table where everyone can see "Oscar Wilde with his boy," Quickly bored with his sexual relationship, Bosie introduces Oscar to a prominent London male brothel, but Oscar seems more intent on educating the "rent boys" in philosophy and espousing the ideals of platonic Greek love than jumping into the sack with any of the young men.
Oscar can only create when Bosie is absent, so it's readily apparent that the tempestuous and manipulative younger man isn't good for Oscar. Despite realizing this intellectually, Oscar can't help loving Bosie. Eventually this leads to a well constructed scene with Bosie's brutal father, the Marquess of Queensbury (Tom Wilkinson), who is charmed by Oscar's fishing tales but remains wary of his close relationship with his son. The film faithfully reconstructs historical events, so inevitably Oscar attempts to charm the English court in his libel case, but when confronted with "rent boy" evidence to support Queensbury's charges of sodomy, he finds the court coldly indifferent and the general population hostile.
Gilbert doesn't attempt too much with his material. Many of the quotes come from Wilde's published works, and the screenplay reconstructs events straight from Ellmann's biography, so this makes for a good straightforward introduction to Wilde's life and work. Ending somewhat ambiguously with a reunion with Bosie after his release from prison, the film only provides end footnotes to indicate that they soon broke off their relationship and denotes the death dates for the two. Had Gilbert wanted to contrast Bosie's troubled character with Wilde's relative purity and innocence, that would have been easy. In real life, Bosie converts to Catholicism, marries, and becomes a prime example of a self-hating homophobe, renouncing the practice and attempting to bring gays to English "justice." Eventually he was imprisoned himself for libeling Winston Churchill, and died obscurely about 45 years after Wilde.
Any theatrical production that sticks close to Wilde's story provides adequate drama, since he's such an interesting and complex personality and leads an unconventional life, so in that sense Wilde ranks as a competent portrayal. What makes it stand out as a better than average biopic lies in the hands of casting director Sarah Bird, especially if she's behind the casting of Stephen Fry. He was born to play Oscar Wilde! Not only does he physically resemble the flamboyant genius writer, but his natural English speaking and mannerisms perfectly capture the character. The fact that Fry is gay adds a dimension that would be difficult for a straight actor to capture, although both Law and Sheen perform admirably in supporting kisses and embraces. It's a film that by necessity leans heavy on its leading actor, and Fry shows that he's up to the task, demonstrating a wide emotional range from cynical disdain, to true warmth, to frustration, and to vulnerability, creating a sympathetic portrait of the brilliant literary/homosexual icon.
Side note: Observant Lord of the Rings fans can see Orlando Bloom type cast in his first feature in a brief three-second cameo as a "rent boy." He even has a speaking part, asking the obviously intrigued Oscar Wilde, "Looking for someone?"