At the height of his fame (his plays being much celebrated in London in the 1890's), Oscar Wilde angers the Lord Queensbury by having what is whispered and gossiped as a romantic ... See full summary »
At the height of his fame (his plays being much celebrated in London in the 1890's), Oscar Wilde angers the Lord Queensbury by having what is whispered and gossiped as a romantic relationship with Queensbury's son, twenty years Wilde's junior. When Queensbury slanders Wilde, the arrogant artist decides to take the matter to court, and brings about his own downfall. Written by
Gary Dickerson <email@example.com>
It is sometimes said of London buses that you can wait ages for one and then two come along at once. So it is with films about Oscar Wilde. The world waited sixty years for a film about him, and then two came along in the same year, "The Trials of Oscar Wilde" starring Peter Finch and "Oscar Wilde" starring Robert Morley. There was, of course, a third version in the late nineties, "Wilde" starring Stephen Fry.
I have never seen the Morley film, but "The Trials" has a lot in common with "Wilde". Both tell the same story of Wilde's friendship with the handsome but spoilt young aristocrat Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), and of how Wilde was pressured into bringing an ill-advised libel suit against Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who had accused him of sodomy. As a result of the failure of that lawsuit, Wilde was arrested, charged with gross indecency and sentenced to two years imprisonment. Although the two films acknowledge different source material, "Wilde" is clearly indebted to "The Trials"; the two films have a number of scenes in common. In places the dialogue is almost word-for-word the same.
There are, however, a number of differences of emphasis. "The Trials", as its name might suggest, places a greater emphasis on the legal aspects of Wilde's case, with a greater number of courtroom scenes. (The word "trials" clearly has two meanings here; it is used both in its legal sense and in the sense of "sufferings"). It omits, however, details of Wilde's life in Paris after his release, and places less emphasis on his relationship with his wife Constance and with his children.
There are some notable acting performances in "The Trials", especially from James Mason as Queensberry's lawyer Edward Carson and Lionel Jeffries as the splenetic Marquess himself, a man eaten up with rage and hatred; I preferred Jeffries to Tom Wilkinson who played this role in "Wilde". John Fraser, on the other hand, was not as good as Jude Law as Bosie. Peter Finch was a gifted actor, but I certainly preferred Fry's interpretation of the title role. Whereas Fry made Wilde witty, but also kindly, sensitive and generous, Finch's Wilde came across as too much the dandy, a man who, although capable of impulsive generosity, often used his wit as a mask to hide his true feelings. Only towards the end of the film, when he realises that he is in danger of imprisonment, does he become more emotional.
The greatest difference between the two films is that "The Trials" does not actually admit that Wilde was a homosexual. The impression is given that he may well have been the victim of unfounded gossip, of a deliberate conspiracy led by Queensberry to blacken his name and of perjured evidence given by the prosecution witnesses in court. In reality, there can be no doubt that Wilde was gay, and the Stephen Fry version of his life is quite explicit on this point. Queensberry's accusations were largely true, and in denying them Wilde perjured himself. It has become a received idea to say that he was the victim of the ignorant prejudices of the Victorian era and to congratulate ourselves (rather smugly) that we are today altogether more liberal and enlightened. This attitude, however, ignores the fact that for all his talents and his good qualities Wilde had a strongly self-destructive side to his nature. As some of his lovers were below the age of consent, if he were living in the first decade of the twenty-first century rather than the last decade of the nineteenth, he might actually receive, given contemporary anxieties about paedophilia, a longer prison term than two years. Even if he avoided a jail sentence for sex with minors, he would certainly receive one for perjury.
It is precisely because "Wilde" is more honest about its subject that it is the better film. Peter Finch's Wilde is the innocent victim of other men's villainy; Stephen Fry's Wilde is a tragic hero, a great man undone by a flaw in his character. Although he is more seriously flawed than Finch's character, however, he is also more human and lovable, and his story seems more tragic.
"The Trials", however, probably went as far as any film could in dealing with the subject of homosexuality. For many years it had been taboo in the cinema; a film on this subject would have been unthinkable in the Britain of, say, 1930, or even 1950. By the early sixties the moral climate had become slightly more liberal; the influential film "Victim", which some credit with helping to bring about the legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults, was to come out in 1961, a year after "The Trials". In 1960, however, homosexuality was still a criminal offence, and there was a limit to how far it could be freely discussed in the cinema. Seen in this light, "The Trials", although in some respects disappointing, can be seen as a brave attempt to tackle a sensitive topic. 7/10
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