by Cathleen Myers

1998 is rapidly becoming the year of Oscar Wilde. With two hit plays about Wilde’s life - Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Judas Kiss - still running on Broadway, a new film version of Wilde’s ironically timely political comedy An Ideal Husband begins shooting this summer. And after an inexplicable five month delay, director Brian Gilbert’s new film biography Wilde has finally opened in San Francisco (at the Embarcadero). It was well worth the wait.

Unlike the plays and earlier films (including the 1959 Trials of Oscar Wilde) which have all focused on a single aspect of Wilde’s brilliant but all too short career, Wilde is a panoramic biopic - beginning with his conquest of the American West and proceeding to his courtship of lovely Constance Lloyd, his rise to fame as poet, novelist, playwright, and wit, and his doomed love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, the scandal that destroyed both his career and his life. Gilbert and screenwriter Julian Mitchell (basing his screenplay on Richard Ellmann’s biography) have attempted far too much for a single film. The movie has been compared, unfavorably, with the more historically accurate Gross Indecency. What makes the play so absolutely compelling is that it focuses exclusively on Wilde’s three trials, and nearly the entire text of the play is drawn, literally, from the actual trial transcripts, newspaper reports, Wilde’s poetry and prose, and letters and memoirs written by the other participants ("You mean this is all real?" asked one young theatre-goer. "Yep," replied his companion, "Just about word for word."). The characters speak in their own words - often contradicting each other’s vision of the truth - and the audience is invited to make up its own mind about who is telling the truth. The play, alternately hilarious, dramatic and heart-rending, gives us a far more balanced view of Wilde’s tragedy and is perhaps the best play Wilde never wrote. Be sure to catch it the next time it plays in San Francisco.

On the other hand, Wilde’s story is so fascinating that it makes a colorful epic in itself and Wilde is an utterly engrossing film. There are plenty of inside jokes for fans and Wilde scholars, but the film is also an entertaining introduction to Wilde’s life and works. It was a pleasure to listen to the youthful first night crowd’s reactions of hilarity, awe, shock and horror as the story progressed from comedy to stark tragedy.

Gilbert is fortunate in his cast. Stephen Fry was simply born to play Wilde (as he says his friends have told him for years!). He has Wilde’s imposing physical presence and thrilling voice as well as his easy way of tossing off a bon mot and is equally at home in comedy and tragedy. But the supporting cast is almost as good. Jennifer Ehle, the enchanting Elizabeth Bennett from the recent BBC Pride & Prejudice, simply glows with warmth and sympathy as Wilde’s adoring wife Constance. Vanessa Redgrave is perfectly cast "Speranza," Lady Wilde, the author’s Irish radical mother. Best of all is Jude Law as the impossibly beautiful, psychopathically selfish Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), whose golden presence evokes hisses and whistles from his very first closeup. Alternately charming and callously cruel, Law believably portrays an eternally spoiled child who sincerely believes that the universe revolves around him ("This trial isn’t about him," he insists. "It’s about ME!"). Later, we see him musing over Oscar’s arrest, mournfully holding his wineglass in his impeccably tailored hand, gazing out over a Parisian veranda, exclaiming without any sense of irony, "I’m the one who’s really suffering." While Lord Alfred’s father - the odious Marquis of Queensbury who goads Wilde into his fatal lawsuit - is not exonerated in the film, Tom Wilkinson does invest the role with an eccentric dignity. At least Queensbury’s hatred for the vice he couldn’t spell is partly explained in the film (His eldest son and heir, Lord Drumlanrig, had committed suicide the previous year - allegedly after an affair with his mentor, Liberal Foreign Secretary Lord Rosebery).

The film has its flaws: More than one viewer has found the film too didactic - too obvious in its pro-gay-rights agenda - while never hinting, as Gross Indecency does, at the political motivation behind the government’s determined prosecution of Oscar Wilde. As Stephen Fry himself has admitted, there are also a number of minor but unnecessary historical errors in the script, particularly in scenes which can be clearly documented. Why, for instance, are there women in the audience at Wilde’s trials? (Women were, of course, barred from the courtroom because of the very nature of the trial and because of sexually explicit testimony of the Prosecution’s witnesses). The Reading Gaol treadmill scenes are not accurate (Wilde suffered greatly there but was apparently not put to this particular torture). And the controversial ending takes some rather serious liberties with chronology.

On the other hand, the production values put even the best of Merchant Ivory to shame, while Nic Ede’s costumes are so handsome - especially for the well-tailored Wilde - that we forgive the excessively short sleeves on Constance’s visiting dress (A lady doesn’t visit Reading Gaol in short sleeves!). A pity we never actually get to see the lovely Ms. Ehle in any of the daring "rational" costumes that Oscar designed for her!

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