The Trials of Oscar Wilde 1961 ****

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…is a neat title, because we’re not just talking about one trial here, but several, and these court-room appearances are indeed a trial to Oscar Wilde himself, so exhausting that the great man is a somewhat broken figure by the end. Still, Ken Hughes’s 1961 film is pretty much a success in terms of bring the story of Oscar Wilde to the big screen in the most direct fashion, demonstrating ably how a failed libel on Wilde’s part led him into a trap laid by the authorities.

The Trails of Oscar Wilde is more than watchable fare today, largely because it carries forward a certain theatrical strength derived from source play The Stringed Lute by John Furnell. Also elevating the action is the casting; Peter Finch is one of the acting greats, and although Network saw him pull out all the stops to ground-breaking effect, he absolutely submerges himself in Wilde, bringing the bon mots into play with great skill, and always making Wilde more than just a quote machine.

John Fraser is a pretty fine Alfred Douglas, and the scandal around their relationship is all the more dramatic because the ‘love that dare not speak it’s name’ is never defined by any action; this is 1961 after all. That evasive quality, missing from Stephen Fry’s Wilde or Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince, both excellent films, is centre stage here, and adds greatly to the effect; much as the lack of overt homosexuality pervades Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, it makes sense in Hughes’s film that because Wilde’s sexuality is not defined, it makes him vulnerable, a decidedly modern way of seeing it given that Wilde is the clear and unmistakable hero here.

If the lengthy running time is a little too much, it’s hard to know what to cut; Finch dispensing Wildean words is a pure pleasure, and seeing him grandstand in the courtroom opposite James Mason is something of a joy in terms of old-school performances; as Sir Edward Carson, Mason gives a great rendition of a sharp mind of sense blood in the water. Bond duo Albert R Broccoli and production designer Ken Adam do a great job of creating wide-active frames for old-world London, and the whole production is sharp as a tack. Wilde is a great subject for a film, and there’s quite a few notable entries, but The Trials of Oscar Wilde is worth casting to see Finch in full flow, bringing a character to life in a way that reminds you how life knocked the stuffing out of Oscar Wilde.

 

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