The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) ****

Currently occupying the top spot on Rotten Tomatoes, having replaced Paddington 2 (2017), this isn’t quite the five-star job that ranking suggests, and reflecting the era in which it was made as much as the eponymous character’s tribulations at the end of the nineteenth century, it is certainly a very fine movie. “The love that dare not speak its name” is as far as anyone goes in defining what exactly was famed writer Oscar Wilde’s crime, the word “homosexual” not permitted mention in 1960 any more than in the 1890s.

I had always been intrigued by the title, assuming it referred to a lifetime of trials, of the homosexual tortured by desire, the need to keep his preferences under wraps and to maintain an outward front of husband and father. But, in fact, it refers to the three trials which brought down Wilde. In the first he is not actually the one in the dock.

Where the British poster accentuated the shock value, foreign marketing was more discreet. It was known as “The Green Carnation” because Wilde was famed for wearing one in his lapel.

Pride of place there goes to the Marquis of Queensberry (Lionel Jeffries) – yes, the guy who invented the rules of boxing – who is defending himself against charges of slander. But when he wins that case, it is Wilde’s turn to face prison. But when the jury can’t make up his mind, the judge orders a re-trial which goes the way an outraged establishment wishes.

The problem for Oscar Wilde (Peter Finch) is that he doesn’t hide his desires under a bushel any more than he does his talent. And it’s this parading of lover Bosie, aka Lord Alfred Douglas (John Fraser), that is his undoing. And his hubris. Confronted by an enraged marquis, instead of backing down and ignoring the tittle-tattle, Wilde, at the height of his fame – novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and theatrical masterpieces like The Importance of Being Earnest triggers his downfall by accusing the nobleman of slander.

The beloved Oscar Wilde, full of clever retorts and trademark epigrammatic wit, holds sway in the first half, the derided version, somewhat baffled at the turn of events, takes over in the second half. Apart from his good looks, Bosie is not the kind of tragic and charismatic character you would expect to be the cause of such a titanic fall from grace. He is spoiled, extravagant, weak.

The initial angst is all in the mind of Wilde’s wife Constance (Yvonne Mitchell), left to dine alone while her husband is out on the town or in another man’s bed. Another woman, she explains, she could deal with, but not a man. Apart from his infidelity, theirs appears a strong enough relationship, he has fathered two children after all, is affectionate with his wife and adoring of his children, spending enough time with them to come up with one of his famous tales, The Happy Prince.

The movies were full of captivating males who had been led astray by another woman, so, to some extent, we are conditioned to accept the same behavior from a homosexual. But that is now. In 1960 this would have been as dangerous a project as you could imagine, so it’s to director Ken Hughes’ (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968) merit that he shies away from very little, pronouncing the tainted word the one exception.

It’s a marvellous evocation of the period, replete with hansom cabs and high society having the time of its life, and where everyone, even the marquis is the presence of a superior royal, knows his place. Wilde’s real crime was not knowing his place, hoping to skate past the growing whispers on talent alone, as if his crime could be regarded as one of the sparkling fictions he created. And he would probably have got away with it, writing a different chapter in the history of the suppressed homosexual, had he not taken the marquis to court.

Peter Finch (The Legend of Lylah Clare, 1968) – who won a Bafta for his performance – is exceptionally impressive as a man brought to his knees by compulsion. From the talk of the town to what in these parts we’d call the “talk of the steamie,” he maintains a supreme dignity, only surrendering to inner pain when drunk.

Lionel Jeffries (First Men in the Moon, 1964), whose forte was usually the absent-minded professor, is the surprising pick of the rest of the cast as the vindictive, apoplectic marquis. Yvonne Mitchell (Genghis Khan, 1965), scarcely permitted to show grief at the changes in her fortune, is convincing as the loving wife. But the other characters are provided with less material. James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) has a cameo.

Ken Hughes holds back any sense of outrage – leaving that to the discerning audience – and presents a historical drama with the emphasis on reality. You won’t be able to watch this without almost screaming at the screen at the vainglorious characters who seek to deny sexuality.  

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

3 thoughts on “The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) ****”

    1. Just noticed from an advert back in the day that it was released in Technirama. “So big it can only be told in Technirama-Technicolor.” Assuming it’s not Super Technirama which would mean 70mm.


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