Oscar Wilde — socialite, dandy and famous wit — is possibly one of the most celebrated literary greats of all time; his life has already been portrayed on screen three times, by Robert Morley, Peter Finch and Stephen Fry, whose ease in the role saw some critics suggest he was born to play the part. Here we look at whether the Stephen Fry version stands up to real life.
In real life:
In 1883, Irish-born Oscar Wilde returned to London bursting with exuberance from a year long lecture tour of the United States and Canada. Full of talent, passion and, most of all, full of himself, he courted and married the beautiful Constance Lloyd. Oscar and Constance soon had two sons whom they both loved very much. But one evening, houseguest Robert Ross seduced Oscar and forced him finally to confront the homosexual feelings that had gripped him since his schooldays.
Oscar’s work thrived on the realisation that he was gay, but his private life flew increasingly in the face of the decidedly anti-homosexual conventions of late Victorian society. As his literary career flourished, the risk of a huge scandal grew ever larger.
And that scandal began in 1892, on the first night of his acclaimed play Lady Windermere’s Fan, when Oscar was re-introduced to a handsome young Oxford undergraduate, Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed ‘Bosie’. Oscar was mesmerised by the cocky, dashing and intelligent young man and began the passionate and stormy relationship which consumed and ultimately destroyed him.
In reel life:
Oscar Wilde finds a curious likeness in the hulking frame of novelist and comedian Stephen Fry. Never shirking the complexities of Wilde’s sexuality (though famous for pursuing “the love that dare not speak its name”, he was married with children), Gilbert’s film follows his destructive love for the fey Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law) that brought unwarranted attention to Wilde’s private life and finally put him in jail on sodomy charges.
Fry’s portrayal of Wilde shows him to be an honest man in a society where hypocrisy was more valued, also perhaps a little naïve, failing through infatuation to see Douglas’ motives. Gilbert’s direction never wavers and his depiction of the gay demi-monde of Victorian times is more explicit than previous films could be.
Tender but never maudlin, this is a fine epitaph to the man who once complained, “In this life there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants. The other is getting it!”