Oscar Wilde’s life and career as a playwright are destroyed by a morals charge…in Wilde. Biographical. [Dir: Brian Gilbert/ Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Vanessa Redgrave/ 117 min/ Drama, Biography/ Government as Bigot, Sexual Liberty, Social Tolerance]
This film begins with Wilde’s ascent into fame and respectability and parallels from there the subsequent events of his life, focusing for the most part on his gradual recognition of his own homosexuality and his undoing at the hands of Victorian authorities.
At age thirty, Wilde was already internationally renowned as a wit. Returning from a successful lecture tour of the U.S. and Canada, he married and started a family. But underneath, he had been repressing his true sexual nature for years. The floodgates were finally thrown open when he began a relationship with a male houseguest.
This was extremely risky. “Gross indecency,” as such a thing was characterized in those days, was punishable with up to two years in prison at hard labor. That might not sound so bad, but hard labor by Victorian standards was so harsh that it meant infirmity or death for many, as it would ultimately for Wilde. He was oblivious to this risk. For him, the realization that he was gay had an effect that was at once liberating and uncontrollable.
Subsequently, Wilde fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, a dashing but licentious and indiscreet young man. Wilde’s involvement with Douglas would eventually be exposed in court, leading to a conviction for Wilde. As a result of cruel prison conditions, he became increasingly ill and died a few years after his release.
The film sticks pretty close to the facts, although it’s a little understated at times. For instance, the trial scene, which must surely have been a tremendous drama in real life, seems abbreviated here. Even so, the film is highly sympathetic to Wilde’s experience and makes a very good example of the destructive effects of intolerance and government criminalization of consensual acts. As such it should appeal to libertarians.
Stephen Fry, a British comic actor perhaps best known for his role as Jeeves in television’s Jeeves & Wooster, is terrific as Wilde and very much looks the part. Jude Law is likewise persuasive as the mercurial Douglas. It’s strange to think that one of the world’s greatest playwrights was killed off in his prime for a victimless offense, but then of the millions in prison today for such crimes it’s likely we’ve got a few Wildes of our own behind bars. Here’s a reminder, just in case you needed one, of their tragedy.