September 13, 2009
Brilliant Star; Drab Gray
Observations from Day 4 of the Toronto International Film Festival
Campion also mentioned that she was not a fan of poetry before she read the biography of Keats that prompted the film. Yet this, too, surprisingly works to the film's advantage. Brawne is presented as one who only gradually comes to understand and appreciate the poetry, and this allows her to serve as a surrogate for the audience. Not that the film is stingy with Keats's words--it isn't. But the work is always subordinated to the soul that produced it. In this, the film is like an anti-Shakespeare in Love, where it is clear that the woman loves the poetry first and the man only for producing it.
As a scholar of literature who has always found the Romantic poets to be more narcissistic and self-indulgent than deep, more about sensation than truth and beauty, I was deeply appreciative of the film's ability to make me understand the greatness of Keats's and Brawne's spirits and not merely their accomplishments.
Jesus said, "When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven." I've never really understood that verse before, and the film doesn't mention it explicitly (nor honestly, any conventional religious ideas for that that matter), but I feel as though I might have caught a glimpse of the truth at the heart of that verse in a poetic sort of way.
From a moral standpoint, one problem with the work might be that one always feels that Wilde is a bit more on the side of the tempter than the resister. Most of Colin Firth's lines got big laughs, but by the time Gray (Ben Barnes) complains that he has only followed Wotton's advice the audience is far enough removed from the instruction in debauchery to feel complicit for encouraging it.
The real problem is a structural one, though. Once the moral slide begins, there is a dreary monotony to each regression. A seduction. A suspicion. A murder. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Even the portrait is a bit of a MacGuffin; it is actually shown very little and used less as a poetic symbol (like the scarlet letter) and more as a geographical focal point to allow long, ominous tracking shots to closed doors.
The one place, oddly enough, where the film perks up is when Gray visits a confessional. When he insists that most of us could not stand a glimpse of our own souls, we understand that the painting is a symbol of the human condition and not just a supernatural talisman for one man. Ultimately, though, this scene also fizzles, one more example of a church unable to offer any substantive help or answers to those who see the world as it really is.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890, but the film is decidedly twentieth century in the way it channels the source material's cynicism to the point of appearing almost nihilistic. "You possess the only two things worth having," Wotton tells Dorian, "youth and beauty."
I wonder if John Keats and Fannie Brawne would agree?
Tomorrow's Screenings: A Solitary Man, The Road, Agora, Life During Wartime.
Guest blogger Kenneth R. Morefield, an English prof at Campbell University, is writing about the Toronto International Film Festival for CT Movies.