May 11, 1998 12:00 PM

Stephen Fry, Jude Law

Oscar Wilde, Victorian wit and playwright, is enjoying a boom. There are already two plays about him in New York (one with Liam Neeson), and now this movie, which—with apologies to Wilde’s masterpiece—is more earnest than important. Wilde, in addition to sketching in his fond but negligent family life (he had two children), covers the basics of the writer’s disastrous gay love affair with a spoiled aristocratic brat, Alfred Douglas (Law); his bizarre libel suit against the boy’s father (who sent Wilde a misspelled note calling him a “somdomite”); and his subsequent imprisonment for indecency.

As Wilde, Fry is physically ideal—large yet delicate. He delivers a stream of epigrams (“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it”) with understated grace. He endures catastrophe with dignified sorrow. It’s one of many good performances here (Vanessa Redgrave is quite touching in a small part, Wilde’s impassioned, romantic mama). But the movie reduces Wilde to a martyr. Big, lovable and crushably soft, he’s H.R. Pufnstuf. (R)

Bottom Line: More mild than Wilde

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