Oscar Wilde was a husband, a father, and one of history’s first gay celebrities. Convicted in a Victorian court of law for ”gross indecency” — homosexual behavior — the man who was known for his spirited wit nearly died of heartbreak and illness during two miserable years of hard labor in prison. A sophisticated understanding of the importance of style illuminates his theatrical masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest; a blind devotion to his capricious young aristo lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (nicknamed Bosie), led to near destruction by Bosie’s vicious father, the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde, an earnest production all its own from director Brian Gilbert (Tom & Viv), lays out the contradictions of being Oscar neatly for newcomers to the playwright’s remarkable life story. What’s missing, though, is a convincing feeling of Wilde-ness.
Where’s that stinging intelligence? Where’s any insight into the volatile emotional and sexual connection that kept the famous older man and the headstrong younger lover in thrall to one another? How did the Wilde marriage work? Gilbert’s drama (with a screenplay by Julian Mitchell) misses the spark, while providing Masterpiece Theatre-smooth vignettes, nice costumes, and a few arty scenes of man-to-man sex. For more depth in fewer scenes, check the Masterpiece Theatre archives for Lillie, about the English ”professional beauty” who was Oscar’s great friend, with Peter Egan as Wilde opposite Francesca Annis.
Wilde does, however, feature the striking sight of the always-rewarding Stephen Fry in the title role. Well over six feet tall, ungainly yet self-possessed, with a sad, fleshy face and a keen intellect of his own, the gifted screenwriter-comedian-novelist and actor (A Fish Called Wanda) brings dignity and delicacy to the part. Fry is joined by Jude Law (Gattaca) as Bosie, Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty) as Lord Queensberry, and Jennifer Ehle (the BBC/A&E’s Pride and Prejudice) as Oscar’s wife. Vanessa Redgrave, in one of those madwoman roles the old girl enjoys every now and then, plays Oscar’s mum a la Shirley MacLaine in Madame Sousatzka.