Wilde (The Cornfield #50)

Anglo-Irish literary subjects are on my mind at the moment, and Oscar Wilde died on Nov. 30, 1900, and that’s about it justifying a look at a 1998 Film.com review of a rather disappointingly normal movie.

One of the elements of Wilde, the film bio of the great Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde, is the suggestion that the flamboyant writer was in fact something of a comfortable bourgeois, a man who loved his children and his pleasant home and his smoking jacket. Certainly the movie arranged around Wilde is decidedly non-radical. Of course Wilde’s dalliances with young men are depicted with frank detail — these are the 1990s, not Wilde’s 1890s. But in most respects this film is as fussy and stately as any movie biography from the Hollywood golden age. It’s The Life of Emile Zola with rent boys.

Which is all right. There are pleasures to be taken from such a traditional film, and Wilde has its share, chiefly in the lovely central performance by the comedian/actor/novelist Stephen Fry. The movie begins with a wonderfully offbeat sequence of Wilde touring the United States, sharing his bon mots with a group of filthy coal miners. The trajectory then travels through Wilde’s marriage to the mostly silent Constance (Jennifer Ehle, the merry-eyed actress from the BBC “Pride and Prejudice”) and his growing success with “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and his plays on the London stage. His fascination with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (perfectly captured by Jude Law) unrolls with predictable foreshadowings of doom. There’s even a scene between the two of them on the street, before they’ve met, when Wilde is struck by a thunderclap of fear at the sight of the young man.

Surprisingly, not much time is spent on the sensational trials that preceded Wilde’s imprisonment for homosexuality. We do get a strong sense of the toll of his two years in hard labor, eloquently caught by Fry’s performance. Even the sight of Wilde with his flowing locks shorn for jail is a very effective shock. Elsewhere, director Brian Gilbert (a solid filmmaker who’s never quite matched his debut picture, a little-seen delight called Sharma and Beyond) keeps the focus on Wilde’s superb one-liners and a portrait of the society in which the great man lived. Vanessa Redgrave suggests volumes in her brief scenes as Wilde’s mother, and Michael Sheen does what he can with the role of Wilde’s loyal friend Robbie Ross. Tom Wilkinson, as Bosie’s hateful father the Marquess of Queensberry (and the man whose public smearing of Wilde led to the disastrous trials), has one marvelous scene at dinner with Wilde, where the writer manages to seduce — in the social sense — the older man with flattery and attention. The movie flubs a great moment: Queensberry’s insulting note to Wilde accused the author of being a “Somdomite,” a tragi-comic misspelling. If you didn’t know the story already, you might miss that absurd historical detail.

Inevitably, and inadvertently, some of the movie plays like that old Monty Python sketch where Oscar Wilde exists only to one-up his associates in the creation of saucy zingers (“Your highness is like a stream of bat’s piss”). But when it works, it works nicely. When Wilde is released from prison, a broken man, he still has the elan to comment on the hat worn by the woman who picks him up at the gate. That’s heroism, in Wildean terms — to maintain one’s wit amidst heartbreak and chaos. Wilde had the depth to understand that style is not frippery or decoration; style is a way of being, and staying, alive.