"Wilde" is a worthy movie that, although helped considerably by Stephen Fry's bravura performance, never breaks out of its static, episodic structure.
As the playwright, author and raconteur Oscar Wilde, Fry could not be more perfectly cast. He brings enormous reserves of quiet sympathy and humanity to a man who might otherwise have been reduced to a mere character.
If "Wilde" contents itself with concentrating on the most notorious events of Wilde's life, re-telling them through a theatrical series of vignettes, Fry's portrayal is inspired. Thanks to the compassion with which he inhabits his character, filmgoers glimpse not only Wilde's rapier wit, but also the gentle, protective affection he expressed so generously.
"Wilde" begins on an auspiciously counter-intuitive note: We meet Oscar Wilde, not in the posh precincts of Victorian London but in an American silver mine, where he has come in the course of a yearlong lecture tour that ended in 1883.
When Wilde returns to London he meets and marries Constance Lloyd (Jennifer Ehle), and the two embark on an altogether passionate and mutually loving union. When Oscar is seduced by a Canadian houseguest, Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen), he must confront the feelings for men he has suppressed for so many years -- feelings that don't impinge on his abiding love for Constance and his growing family (the Wildes would have two sons). But in 1892, when Oscar -- flush with the success of the novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and the play "Lady Windermere's Fan" -- meets Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, that dynamic would change.
If Constance is willing to share Oscar with Bosie -- played with stormy-eyed intensity by Jude Law -- Bosie's father will have none of it. The Marquess of Queensberry (a growling Tom Wilkerson) proceeds to harass Wilde until the author finally sues him for libel. That fit of pique would result in Wilde being arrested, tried and imprisoned for sodomy, a cataclysm from which he would never recover.
There's nothing terribly wrong with "Wilde," which was written and directed by Brian Gilbert ("Tom & Viv"), and in fact Fry's performance is terribly right. The problem is that Gilbert doesn't use the medium with any sense of cinematic style. Rather he relays the narrative of "Wilde" in a series of visually expository blocks that have all the verve of waxed fruit.
According to production notes, Gilbert adapted the film from Richard Ellman's acclaimed biography of Oscar Wilde, and "Wilde" bears all the earmarks of an unimaginative adaptation. See "Wilde" for Stephen Fry but read Ellman for the deeper story.
Starring Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Vanessa Redgrave
Directed by Brian Gilbert
Rated R (strong sexuality and language)
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Sun Score ** 1/2
Pub Date: 6/05/98