Oscar Wilde (1960) ****

You might be surprised to learn there were two Oscar Wildes. Not the famed writer and a doppelganger of course but two films on the same subject that were released in the same month. This is the low-rent version, costing a fraction of the rival The Trials of Oscar Wilde directed by Ken Hughes. It’s easy to be disdainful of the cheaper effort, with little cash available for scenery and costumes, but somehow it rises above budget limitations. Structurally, both movies focus on the trial – or in the case of The Trials of Oscar Wilde the three trials he endured – but the glossier pictures it has to be said glosses over a great deal.

While I enjoyed it at the time, I now find that in trying to make a modern martyr out of Oscar Wilde, the Ken Hughes picture built him up so much that it was difficult to find any flaw in his character. We never find out what was the actual slur the Marquis of Queensbury made on Wilde, resulting the playwright taking him to court for libel. And that version begins with Wilde and Alfred Lord Douglas (“Bosie”), son of the Marquis, already deep into their affair.

On the other hand, Oscar Wilde, the final film of Hollywood veteran director Gregory Ratoff (Intermezzo, 1939), starts at the beginning of their relationship with greater emphasis on Wilde’s practicality rather than his wit and Bosie’s (John Neville) tortured relationship with  his hypocritical father (Edward Chapman) who, while taking the moral high ground, keeps a mistress. On Wilde (Robert Morley) being described as a sodomite by the Marquis, Bosie’s desire to see his father humiliated in court verges on revenge. “You weren’t looking for a friend,” Wilde astutely tells his lover, “You were looking for a weapon.” Bosie is big on humiliation – he is the one to break the news of Wilde’s duplicity to the author’s wife (Phyllis Calvert). So determined is he on the court case that he fails to tell Wilde that his father has private detectives scouring London to find evidence.

While in court Wilde can keep the jury in stitches with his epigrams, he soon comes up against the Marquis’s formidable lawyer Sir Edward Carson (a quite stunning performance by Ralph Richardson). From Carson we learn a great deal more of Wilde’s practices, some of which nowadays would be termed grooming. Essentially, Carson paints a portrait of a predator, an older man (Wilde was 41) whose uses his wealth and wit to court many lovers, mostly aged around 20, but some as young as 16, barely the age of consent.. And when he felt his secret life was in danger of being exposed, he went so far as to pay for the passage to America of one of his lovers, Alfred Woods, to get him out of the way.

No matter that Wilde at the start can gloss over his promiscuity, complaining that Carson is misinterpreting innocent gestures of friendship, the cunning attorney soon has the author tied in knots as he wheels out one by one information regarding the various lovers.

It’s quite odd to realise that The Trials of Oscar Wilde in presenting the more accurate truth – that the author underwent three trials – fails to provide little more than a surface treatment of  the man’s real-life affairs. Oscar Wilde perhaps delves too deeply for audiences brought up to consider the author a martyr who deserves the free pass allocated all writers of genius. I found Oscar Wilde the more riveting watch because, of course, I already knew the outcome, but the sight of the famed writer, encouraged by the vengeful Bosie,  hung out to dry by his own hubris, and for a man of such wit to be outwitted in the courtroom by Carson was an exceptional watch.

Of course, the imprisonment of Wilde for the crime of being a homosexual is detestable. Even at the point this film was made homosexuality was a crime. So it’s fascinating to see how much The Trials of Oscar Wilde skirts round issues that Oscar Wilde had little problem in spelling out.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed Robert Morley’s performance. I may be wrong, but I think this was the only time he was accorded leading man status. Mostly, he was a supporting actor (The African Queen, 1951, say, or Genghis Khan, 1965) and often just playing a version of his self. Of course, he is outshone by a simply brilliant Ralph Richardson (Khartoum, 1966). John Neville (A Study in Terror, 1965) presents a more in-depth performance than in the rival picture. One-time British box office star Phyllis Calvert (The Golden Madonna, 1949) does well in a small but pivotal role. You might also spot Dennis Price (Tunes of Glory, 1960) and Alexander Knox (Mister Moses, 1965).

Lacking a budget to do much more, Gregory Ratoff sticks to the detail and draws out two superb performances, aided by a tight script by Jo Eisinger (Gilda, 1946; Cold Sweat, 1970) based on the play by Leslie and Sewell Stokes and the work of Frank Harris. As swansongs go, this is hard to beat.

Vastly underrated.

Catch it on YouTube.

NOTE: Oscar Wilde appeared in first run in Glasgow at the La Scala cinema in June 1960 one week ahead of The Trials of Oscar Wilde at the first run ABC Regal and ABC Coliseum.

My Policeman (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Understated love triangle set in the 1950s with perfectly-pitched performances and punctured by reticence, repression and regret. Not that I check reviews before I venture into a cinema but I gather this has been poorly-received, perhaps because it’s funded by Amazon, which has no great record in making movies, and partly, I guess, because it’s headed by pop star-turned-actor Harry Styles, credited with giving Don’t Worry Darling (2022) an unexpected, and for some, unfai, box office push.

But I found this to be solid stuff and despite the tragic outcome no overtly dramatic acting (unlike Emily for example), the whole enterprise pared down, soulful more than anything, and all the better for it. Mostly, it takes place in flashback.

In the 1990s, a stroke-ridden Patrick (Rupert Everett) is given accommodation in the household of married but childless Tom (Linus Roache) and Marion (Gina McKee). Tom resents the intrusion although they were all best pals back in the day. Gradually, we find out why, but the movie begins in low-key fashion, the young Tom (Harry Styles), a policeman, and Marion (Emma Corrin), a teacher, hooking up with all the innocence of that era at the beach. Tom teaches her to swim, she introduces him to art.

Turns out Tom has an arty buddy, Patrick (David Dawson), the slightly older museum curator. Soon they are a threesome, attending concerts and eating out, and while Marion appreciates Patrick’s appreciation of the finer things in life, she’s more at home with the more ordinary Tom. While he’s a bit hesitant about making advances towards her, eventually he plucks up the courage to ask her to marry him.

The movie flips between the 1990s featuring the older trio and the 1950s with young bucks in love. And part of the movie’s attraction is the innocence, it takes a while to work out what’s going on, or more correctly for the audience to be told what’s going on, which is that Tom has fallen in love with Patrick. But he is also in love with Marion and wants children and a proper family, so the suggestion that in marrying her he is seeking the perfect disguise for his sexuality is never pointedly made. Mostly, we get his confusion. Remember this is the 1950s when homosexuality in Britain was a crime that could result in a stiff jail sentence.

Gradually, Marion begins to suspect Tom has leanings and there’s a wonderful scene where she confesses this discovery to her best friend only to be told the friend is a discreet lesbian. Does this suddenly make the friend a completely different person, Marion is asked.

Of course, it’s only going to end in tragedy, and even then it’s an ongoing one, the older Tom unable to admit his preferences, married to the stoic Marion, and clearly agonising over the life he could have led had he been bolder earlier on.

I thought this was very delicately done. The scene where Tom shows his true feelings by his finger almost absent-mindedly stroking Patrick’s neck and his subsequent awkwardness at what then transpires as he comes to terms with his own suppressed emotions is subtly done.

I’m surprised Harry Styles has had such a rough ride over his performance. Perhaps I was out of the loop in the brouhaha of expectation. I thought he captured very well the character’s uncertainty regarding his sexuality, the knowledge that career (bachelors found it hard to get promotion in the police) and marriage could be jeopardized by an illicit action too many. This could not be a more different performance than the alpha male of Don’t Worry Darling. From his initial behavior I half-expected a rom-com where shyness is gradually overcome, but the implicit danger ensures we steer clear of such territory.

Emma Corrin (Netflix’s The Crown) comes across very well as the equally shy young woman of her time, anxious to appear not too forward, unaware of what to expect from the sexual side of marriage, remaining innocent until her wrath takes hold, and clearly willing to make do for the sake, in that very English manner, of appearances. David Dawson, in his first starring movie role, is excellent, rarely letting anguish get the better of him but far from the camp cliché.

Rupert Everett (The Happy Prince, 2018)  is the surprise turn, the virtually mute stroke victim, enduring the torture of living in the same house as his former lover who consistently ignores him. Gina McKee (Lies We Tell, 2017) and Linus Roache (A Call To Spy, 2019) are good as the mismatched couple, though I’m not sure I believed in her final action, a shade too romantic a gesture for a wife who one way or another has kept her husband in thrall for 40 years.

Michael Grandage (Genius, 2016) should be applauded for his sensitivity, for coaxing superb performances from his younger actors, and for falling into the trap of overloading the picture either with a sense of doom or of overplaying the dangers of the lifestyle. Ron Nyswaner (Philadephia, 1993) adapted the book by Bethan Roberts.

Well worth seeing and at last Prime might have something decent to watch.

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