Producer Dan Curtis resurrects another literary classic for the small screen in this stately—if slightly dry—adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel.
After having his portrait painted by famed artist Basil Hallward (Charles Aidman), the young and beautiful Dorian Gray (Shane Briant, FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL) comes under the wing of hedonistic aristocrat Sir Harry Wotton (Nigel Davenport). It is through the older man’s influence that Gray begins to give in to his vices and become increasingly aware—and frightened for—the eventual loss of his youth. Gray makes a spoken wish for his portrait to carry the weight of all his accumulated years while he remain the perfect specimen of a Victorian gentleman. The request comes true, but with some unforeseen side effects: in addition to its subject’s true age, the portrait also reflects all of Dorian’s sins through the deterioration of its painted flesh. With the load taken off his ever-dwindling conscience, Dorian submerges himself in London’s seedy underbelly and has his way with women, drink, drugs, and other forms of debauchery. But even with the painting shuttered away in the attic, Dorian finds out that his past transgressions will not be able to remain hidden forever.
Thanks to a literate script provided by John Tomerlin (author of THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” another tale of beauty and social conformity), this version of the famous story is able to retain a classy atmosphere in spite of the limiting resources of television and explores Wilde’s ideas with a considerable amount of depth given the medium. Status and public presence is held in the highest regard by the elite (“If there’s any one thing worse than being talked about is not to be talked about.”), and even “sensitive” souls like Basil can’t help but sneer at Dorian when he proposes marrying a woman clearly below his station. Scenes discussing the nature of evil’s influence and the passage of time are bolstered by poetic dialogue (“Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face”) and are particularly effective anytime steely-eyed Davenport is on hand as Sir Harry, the Mephistopheles to Briant’s fresh-faced Faustus. The veteran actor manages to steal every moment he’s on screen with the crook of his feline smile. Briant is the only other performer that manages to enliven their role, and his cherubic features and deceptively soft voice are a perfect match for the part of an ignorant pretty boy tampering with forces beyond his control. The rest of the cast is mildly adequate, generally phasing out of memory as soon as they walk off camera.
For all of the cerebral treats, the movie is surprisingly mannered and a little too tame for a story dealing so explicitly with human transgressions. Perhaps due to censorship restriction, the creative team might have feared making any of the violence and depravity too explicit, but even the insinuation of dark deeds taking place (a suicide by drowning is represented by a splashing from off-screen) are handled so timidly that many of the grotesque set pieces lose all impact. The TV movie is more adept at coded messages; Davenport’s plucking of a flower’s petals as he regales Dorian with his philosophy is especially potent. There’s a humorously mismanaged “ominous” commercial cut that has Gray’s butler presenting him with a cup of coffee as the score blasts a cartoonish DUN DUN DUN and the screen fades to black. The most we get in the way of style are some scattered Dutch angles leading up to Dorian’s crimes. If the musical track coupled with Dorian’s voiceover narration seems reminiscent of Curtis’ DARK SHADOWS, it’s no accident: Bob Corbet provides the orchestrations here, though at times they feel recycled from some of his other pieces.
At almost two hours long, the TV production feels padded and could have done with some editing to tighten the action. The eponymous oil’s transformation is handled well enough, and the final decayed state of our antihero is a pleasing last-minute grisly touch. Trivia buffs should listen closely for a reference made to an unseen character named “Sir William Nolan,” the same name of author, screenwriter, and Curtis collaborator William F. Nolan (TRILOGY OF TERROR, BURNT OFFERINGS).