Wild About Wilde
In Brian Gilbert’s Wilde, Oscar Wilde (Stephen Fry) says of the male escorts he meets through Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Jude Law), Such flowers never could grow in the harsh light of day. This comment is more than a simple scripted line. It is the basis for much of the film’s mis-en-scene. For the filmmakers, homosexuality becomes a descent into darkness in terms of secrecy, invoking the necessity for Wilde to hide his true identity from the social critics of his time. This theme is strategically played out through the careful use of lighting in both interior and exterior scenes.
In scenes representing homosexuality, although brilliantly colored, the rooms are also dimly lit and contained by dark walls. The first inkling of Wilde’s desire for young men is depicted when he descends into the darkness of the Leadville, CO mines and yet is guided by angels. When Bosie sings at the piano, the dark wood interior makes his light gray suit and honey colored face stand out. All the young faces glow and these fresh flowers of men flourish in this type of light. Wilde wears white and also shines brightly within the scene, a film gesture than not only represents his eccentric taste, but his desire to reclaim his fearless and confident youth. In the hotel, this pattern is repeated. The costumes coordinate Wilde’s solid yellow suit with Bosie’s yellow and gray plaid. Bosie wears a yellow rose in his lapel coordinating with Wilde. Each shines brightly against the dark wood paneling. A shift is foreshadowed when Bosie learns of his brother’s death and is consoled by Wilde. The two sit in a very dark room huddled on the couch. Blinding light from the outside outlines their bodies morphing together into a nearly unrecognizable shrinking silhouette. The flowers appear to be wilting as they become smothered by the harsh scrutiny of Bosie’s father, Marquess of Queensbury (Tom Wilkenson).
The contrasting scenes involving Wilde’s wife, Constance (Jennifer Ehle), and Wilde’s sons tend to occur in the light of day, demonstrative of the scrutiny of a watchful social eye. In the external settings, Constance strolls through the park or gathers her children and husband from the country creek while drenched in sunlight and surrounded by lush greenery. When without Oscar, she sits in the sun on the beach. The internal settings containing her and the children are set in the soft light of white rooms, whether the bathroom while bathing the baby or the playroom where Oscar begins the tale of the Giant. Even as the children peer out at a rain storm, the light is bright. It is when Constance enters Oscar’s world of darkness, she is often seen as an outsider to Wilde’s world. She enters his study to announce her pregnancy and is no match for his intellect. When she puts the baby down in her bedroom, a disconnect exists between her role as mother and wife. She is also the obstacle between Robbie and Oscar on their first night together. Only at Christmas does the entire family celebrate in dim light, but here Oscar is the intruder.
This connection of light and dark is complicated further between the city and country. Because the country is private, Wilde and Bosie can move freely in the light. This contrasts sharply with the dark alley scene in shades of black and gray where the renters try to blackmail Wilde with his own lost love letter to Bosie. Still, operating freely in the full light of the country isn’t enough for Bosie. He requires connectivity and active, eventful engagement in a urban setting. He becomes bored and outright angered by the disengagement. Here we learn that it is true; these flowers cannot flourish in the full light of day.
I struggled with the morality issue as I thought about what the lighting was meant to portray. The white/right and wrong/black dichotomy is too simplistic, yet it is likely the first impression one is meant to interpret aligning audience perception with the social attitudes of the time. The darkest moments in the film occur in the court house. Homosexuality is not only the topic of conversation, it is held to the highest form of national scrutiny as sanctioned by the queen. Here Wilde is wearing black and his dark hair blends with the nearly black shadows. In high contrast, his accusers wear wigs of glowing silver-white. Black and white here exemplifies the opposite perceptions of a socially defined good and evil. This scene, and those which take place in prison, are Wilde’s darkest moments.
I suspect that the filmmakers intentionally complicate this initial binary reaction through Wilde’s ability to drift in, out and among both dark and light. In the end, we sympathize with Wilde and wish for a seamless light/open and dark/secret integration. A soft light breaks through the darkness only when Constance is situated in front of the window during visiting hours. This occurs again as Oscar is silhouetted against the sun streaming into his cell as he breaks with Bosie in his letter. After his release and Constance?s death, Oscar does return to Bosie, a scene which visually reads as a heroic victory. Bosie stands against a brilliant yellow back drop and the two publicly hug in slow motion. This is no victory though. Instead, we are left to contemplate the reversal of light/wrong and dark/right. The last screen is black as we learn through simple white text that this relationship is short lived and ends again in tragedy. For the last time we are reminded that such flowers never could grow in the harsh light of day.
In contrast with Shakespeare in Love and Impromptu, this film is not about love-as-muse so much as it is about Wilde growing into the knowledge of self via his full immersion into his true sexuality. He writes well enough while with Constance (the woman he genuinely loves but marries because he is “supposed to”). Still, his real success comes after Robbie unlocks the door to a whole new homo-erotic world. Before that happens, Wilde keeps his desires in check, never acting upon his admiration of the shirtless angel in the Colorado mine or the handsome renter in the street as he catches Constance a cab. Once Robbie opens that door, one barred shut by a harsh society filled with “proper” expectations, The Picture of Dorian Gray is written. That novel explores the masks people present to the world, a topic apropriate to Wilde’s many lives. By the time Boy 2 is on the scene, Wilde has produced two successful plays that take London by storm. So, yes, there are several boys-as-muse, but they, as a collective, are the muse only in revealing certain truths to Wilde about himself.
On the other hand, love is the anti-muse, a hindrance. Wilde is too distracted to write while Bosie manipulates his emotions. This to me seems a more believable concept than love’s inspiration. Everyone throughout the film repeats again and again that if Wilde can produce works the likes of “The Importance of Being Earnest” while Bosie is away, the two should part more often.
PS: Just as our discussion of Brokeback Mountain in Chapter Two coincided with the death of Heath Ledger, the mines of Leadville, CO made the news as we began to watch Wilde. According to Watertechonline.com:
1B gallons of contaminated water threatens CO town
Friday, February 15, 2008
DENVER – Lake County Commissioners have declared a local state of emergency in the town of Leadville because there is more than 1 billion gallons of contaminated water trapped in a tunnel that may soon explode, according to a February 15 Associated Press report on CNN.com.
The tunnel is located in the mountains above Leadville. The water, contaminated with heavy metals such as zinc, cadmium and manganese, has pooled up in abandoned mine shafts and a partially collapsed 2.1-mile drainage tunnel, the report said.