Cinematic biographies, even when they are based on a work of non-fiction, are generally fictional in form and often follow an established literary structure. (The filmed non-fiction, documentary-style biography seems, for some reason, to be more suited to the television than to the cinema screen). "Wilde" is essentially based on that age-old literary form- the tragedy of a great man undone by a flaw in his character.
It is not true to say of the film- as Halliwell's Film Guide did- that it attempts to reclaim Wilde as a heterosexual, or even to claim him as bisexual, if by that term is meant someone with an equal sexual attraction towards both men and women. It does, however, explore the paradox that a man who has today become a gay icon was a married father of two children. The impression given in the film, however, is that Wilde's marriage to Constance was not based on sexual attraction- indeed, we learn that the sexual side of the marriage came to an end, by mutual consent, after the birth of their sons. Rather, it was a marriage based upon a desire for companionship, for social respectability, for children. (Wilde is here shown as a loving father).
Today Wilde is sometimes seen as a foppish, effeminate dandy whose main characteristic was a biting, cynical wit. That is not, however, how Stephen Fry portrays him in this film. He is, certainly, witty, but also kindly, sensitive and generous, without any outward display of effeminacy. He is able to inspire great love in others; two of the other characters in the film are shown as being deeply in love with him. One is Constance, who remains loyal to him throughout and even after his disgrace refuses the demands of her family and of society that she should divorce him. (Despite the general Victorian disapproval of divorce, being a divorcée was evidently regarded as a lesser social stigma than being the wife of a man like Wilde). The other is his first male lover Robbie Ross who remains a true friend even when he realises that his love is not reciprocated.
The flaw which proves Wilde's undoing is not, in itself, his homosexuality; in modern times it would be a strange and politically incorrect film which tried to paint homosexuality per se as a character defect. Rather, it is his infatuation with Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie") which clouds his judgement and leads him to act rashly and foolishly. It is a paradox that a man who wrote so wisely and perceptively of human nature in general should have shown so little judgement when judging the nature of individuals. Bosie was a young man of noble family and handsome appearance but who otherwise had little to recommend him. Here, as brilliantly played by Jude Law, he appears as spoilt, vain, selfish, petulant and cruel. Whereas Constance and Robbie are in love with Wilde, and Wilde is in love with Bosie, Bosie is passionately and obsessively in love with himself.
Apart from self-love, Bosie's one great passion in life is his hatred of his father, the Marquess of Queensberry. Admittedly, Queensberry is an arrogant and domineering bully, but Bosie takes this family quarrel beyond the limits of reason, persuading Wilde to launch an ill-advised libel suit over an intemperate remark. It is this action that destroys Wilde in two ways. Physically, it leads directly to his conviction for gross indecency and subsequent imprisonment. Spiritually, it means that the man who has always claimed to hate hypocrisy more than any other vice is forced to become a hypocrite and to perjure himself by denying his homosexuality in the witness box. Giving evidence he interprets Bosie's line about "the love that dare not speak its name" as referring to platonic friendship between an older and a younger man; such a love dare not speak its name for fear that it will be misunderstood as sexual. It is a skillful performance but an insincere one, and Wilde knows it.
In his native Britain at least, Stephen Fry is perhaps not best known as an actor. While he has appeared in a number of films, he is equally well known as a comedian, television presenter and novelist. Nevertheless, he can at his best be a superb actor, and Oscar Wilde seems to be a role that he was born to play. (To declare an interest, he was a university contemporary of mine, and I knew him slightly). For all his faults and his self-destructive nature, we are always aware that Wilde is not only a great man but also a good one. This is one of the most touching performances of recent years. Fry is well supported by Law and by Jennifer Ehle as the aptly-named Constance, a woman so attractive, tender and faithful that one can easily understand how a man who was basically gay could have felt such affection for her. The one performance I was less impressed with was from Tom Wilkinson as Queensberry, who I felt was insufficiently forceful and explosive.
The name of the director, Brian Gilbert, was a new one to me; I have not seen any of his other films. Nevertheless, "Wilde" is a very accomplished piece of film-making, one of the best biopics- and certainly the best literary biopic- that I have seen in recent years. 9/10