The worry about watching an adaptation of a book that’s over 130 years old is that it might be creaky and dated. Fear not! The thrill of this star-studded contemporary reframing of The Picture of Dorian Gray is that it feels effortlessly 2021.
As well as contemporary references to mobile data, The Queen’s Gambit, Le Gateau Chocolat and undergraduates stuck in halls of residence, the production creates a narrative collage using YouTube videos, FaceTiming, SnapChat, text message bubbles, Instagram images and even CC-TV footage.
Henry Filloux-Bennett’s script and Tamara Harvey’s direction make a virtue of the restrictions under which they are operating. Written and filmed under lockdown conditions, this actually reinforces Picture’s theme of isolation and growing detachment from reality.
Given that Wilde’s story – the downfall of a beautiful but narcissistic young man – is so well-known, this digital production wisely front-loads the tragedy. Lady Narborough (Joanna Lumley) and Harry Wotton (Alfred Enoch) are being interviewed to piece together what happened to Dorian Gray (Fionn Whitehead), the charming English literature undergraduate and fast-rising social media star.
The drama’s turning point comes when software developer Basil Hallward (Russell Tovey), who is obsessed with Dorian, offers him an unusual present at his birthday party. It’s an app which he explains will help “if you want your pictures never to age – if you want your i-Self to always remain flawless – if you want your followers to grow beyond your wildest imagination”.
Of course, Dorian accepts eagerly, failing to enquire about the enigmatic “very smallest charge”.
It doesn’t take long for Dorian’s social star to soar but so to the darker consequences. When his newly-acquired girlfriend, Sibyl Vane (Emma McDonald), an aspiring actress, very publicly messes up a high-profile performance of the “All the World’s A Stage” monologue, he mocks her cruelly.
“How could you do this to me?” he demands initially. But then his narcissism emerges: “It was me. Everyone in that room was laughing at me. They know you’re going out with me. Do you have any idea what this is going to do to my following?”
Following online trolling and broken by Dorian’s betrayal, Sibyl takes her own life.
Haunted by a final video message of Sibyl tearfully performing a soliloque from Hamlet, Dorian’s mental health starts to disintegrate. Seeing himself as gaunt and decaying in the mirror but filter-perfected online fractures his sense of reality.
Why We Recommend The Picture of Dorian Gray
This adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray is a perfect cautionary tale for the image-obsessed world of social media so prevalent today. The distorted reality that reliance on filters and the parallel hidden reduction of self-worth is clearly in Henry Filloux-Bennett’s sights.
This modern take on how seeking online popularity regardless of cost can feed narcissism. Dorian’s ultimate isolation and withdrawal from a world where he cannot be what ‘digital Dorian’ is speaks of the threat to mental health damage that overreliance on social media and its technology can bring.
Mapping out Dorian’s descent, Fionn Whitehead offers a beguiling mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary. He is utterly believable as the young, gauche student. Charming, awkward but with subtle hints that he is not entirely innocent. By the end of the film, the haunted ghoul has not a hint of youthful optimism. It’s an outstandingly deft performance.
Dorian’s sexuality in this production is made suitably fluid for a modern retelling. The homosexual undertones of Wilde’s novel, much of which was removed without the author’s knowledge by the original publisher, are made explicit. We know Dorian used the gay-contact app Grindr and at the very least has flirted with the closeted Basil and the lascivious Henry.
What works particularly well are the rivals accounts of events furnished by Lady Narborough and Harry Wotton. Although we are more used to seeing the wondrous Joanna Lumley playing comedy roles or front her life-affirming travel documentaries, it is so good to see her get a chance to show off her acting chops. As Lady Narborough, she is equal parts loveable, wry, scatty and perhaps just a little evasive. In contrast, Alfred Enoch’s Wotton is arrogant, posturing, entitled, rakish with undertones of duplicity.
Henry Filloux-Bennett’s script is literate and well structured. As the story of Dorian’s downfall is revealed, the drama darkens. The image of the shy, likable, young Dorian stays imprinted in our mind as the character becomes ever tortured. It’s a powerful depiction of physical and mental loss.
If we were to make one small criticism: occasionally the script gets momentarily weighed down by the blur of literary references. Hearing quotes not only from Oscar Wilde, but also Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, we felt that cold sweat of last-minute revising for an English lit GCSE!
Faced with reduced rehearsal opportunity, Tamara Harvey with Director of Photography, Benjamin Collins, have managed to create an engaging, intimate, character-driven film that mostly far exceeds its lockdown limitations admirably.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, a co-production between Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, The New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd, paints a cautionary portrait of social media, dating apps and the image-obsessed world in which we live.
Highly Rec’d for lovers of dark drama.
How To Watch The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray is streaming between 16 March until 31 March.
When you buy your ticket, you will receive a screening link for the date you have booked which will expire 48 hours later. You can watch the production as many times as you like within your allocated 48-hour window.
This production has an age rating of 16+ as it features very strong language and suicide references.