Those of us who write for a living stand in awe and envy of Oscar Wilde, a man for whom the perfect phrase seemed always to find a home on his lips and on the pages of his plays and stories and poems. Whatever we write, no matter how gorgeous or witty or perceptive, no matter how much we admire ourselves for having written it, the shadow of Wilde lurks behind us to say we surely could have done better.
There’s a marvelous film that’s been slowly making the rounds of art houses, simply called 'Wilde,' the story of the climactic years of Wilde’s life, based on the classic biography by Richard Ellmann. Stephen Fry is Wilde, and his performance is a brilliant treasure. He has the look of Wilde, and better still the range of voice, from lightest conversation to deepest reading and storytelling. And he gives us a portrait of Wilde that uncannily resembles Wilde’s own creation of Dorian Gray, the man who can stay youthful until the realities of life and death overtake him and his fantasies.
The film was written by Julian Mitchell and directed by Brian Gilbert, and it gives us a deeply textured look at a man who combined in himself the genius of language with the tragic impulse to follow a fantasy to self-destruction. And of course the vehicle for that destruction was the infamous Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, the scorned homosexual son of the Marquess of Queensbury. Until this film, Bosie had always been an enigma to me. What could Wilde ever have seen in him? How could he have let this untalented, dissolute wastrel take over his life and run it -- where? -- into the ground, then deeper, into jail, and then even to the ultimate, bottomless pit, to a lonely death in a cheap hotel in Paris, in the year 1900, at the age of 47.
But for the first time, this film gives us some understanding of Bosie himself, in a fascinating and compelling performance by Jude Law. For Wilde, who adored being adored but never trusted his own worth, Bosie was the perfect partner. Totally consumed with himself, Bosie lived only for what pleased him. He took sexual partners in front of Wilde, tormented him with incessant demands, lived on Wilde’s own income, and dragged Wilde into that tragic courtroom confrontation with the Marquess only in order to punish his father. He was exactly what Wilde wanted -- someone who would devalue him, humiliate him, remind him that he was worthless. Law plays Bosie with passion and selfishness enough to convince us of the believability of this bizarre match.
But there’s more to the film than just this inexorable downward trajectory. We see Wilde and his wife -- a very thoughtful performance by Jennifer Ehle -- and his two young boys. We listen as Wilde reads to them in his gorgeous voice the story he wrote for them about the giant and the children in the garden. And we see him in Reading Jail, serving his two years at hard labor.
And then, in case you’ve forgotten, the closing title reminds you that young Bosie, the monster Wilde worshipped, actually lived on another forty-five years, and did not die until after World War II. How ironic, and how only Wilde would have appreciated the irony.