The Happy Prince ****
Starring: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas, Tom Wilkinson
Director: Rupert Everett
The story of Oscar Wilde has been depicted on screen multiple times before. From Peter Finch’s The Trials Of Oscar Wilde (1960) to Stephen Fry’s Wilde (1997), the rise and fall of the great comic wit of the late Victorian era has been examined, explored and examined again, but the one thing that all previous incarnations had in common was that they end with or immediately following his incarceration for sodomy. So in comes Rupert Everett with a movie that picks up exactly where they left off. Usually the fact that Wilde died in Paris two years after his release is confined to the postscript, but Everett has clearly found inspiration in the vagueries of that gap; two years is a very long time for a man like Wilde to just slip into penniless obscurity.
It is 1900 and Wilde (Everett) is living in a dark and dirty hovel in Paris, living off the kindness of his friends (Firth & Thomas) while trying to reconnect with his wife (Watson) and mourning for the end of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, otherwise known as Bosie (Morgan). A libel suit against Bosie’s father had been the catalyst for Wilde’s trial and subsequent imprisonment, but despite knowing that avoiding all contact with Bosie is for the best for everyone, he cannot resist the temptation to run away with him to Naples, much to everyone’s chagrin.
The narrative skips backwards and forwards across the two year timeframe. At times, it goes back even further, showing glimpses of Wilde’s life at the height of his fame, as well as vignettes of his time as a prisoner. The contrast of the before and after is clear from the outset. Wilde was one of the most highly-regarded writers of his age, with legions of followers who catapulted him to become nothing short of a 1890s celebrity. The violence with which he is hated post-trial is palpable. Mocked, ridiculed, spat upon and threatened, he is treated as the biggest possible pariah, suffering homophobic abuse in its most extreme form. He is chased through quiet streets, prevented from talking to people who still admire him and, in one scene, forced to sit shackled to a prison officer while a whole gang of people take out their deepest homophobia on him.
Everett was born to play this role. His genteel wit transposes perfectly onto this fallen icon, who still maintains that base sparkle that had made him so popular in the first place. He is sharp, droll and comes back with pithy retorts, loving nothing more than having an audience to play up to. For the most part, this comes in the shape of two young Parisian street-urchins, whom he beguiles with a rendition of his short story, the titular The Happy Prince. This is the role of a lifetime, so it comes as no surprise that Everett also wrote and directed this piece himself; a passion project adeptly given life by someone clearly enamoured of its subject.
Naples, Paris and the English countryside are brought contextually to life with locations that portray both the glamour and the squalor of his later years. The camera skilfully captures the natural light, which is often dream-like and twilight-focused, just like the film’s narrative. There is also no shying away for what some might consider the less savoury aspects of his character; he drank, took cocaine and engaged in sex with both male prostitutes and in orgies. Similarly, his relationship with Bosie is also not given the rose-tinted treatment. Colin Morgan depicts the young society heir as a self-centred, whining “it-boy”, whose love for Oscar goes little beyond loving his fame and notoriety. In counterpoint, Edwin Thomas plays Robbie Ross, a doggedly faithful friend who supports Oscar throughout all his darkest times. The script markedly depicts just how wrong for him Bosie was, while just how right Robbie should have been.
Firth and Watson give able support, but the film’s most bizarre moment comes when Tom Wilkinson is wheeled in during the final act as an Irish Catholic priest, ready to administer the last rights. A weirdly comedic turn that clashes with the tone of the narrative, it appears to solely be present as a Canon Chasuble parody, in which priests are all bumbling and incongruous buffoons. However, this is where the literary references end; or at least, this and a Lady Windermere’s Fan moment in the film’s opening, if you want to be really Wilde-geek about it.
The film’s epilogue states that Wilde was pardoned posthumously for his conviction for sodomy in 2017. Where this film really succeeds is just how expertly it hammers home how unjust his treatment both by the law and by society really was. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that Wilde’s decline and tragic fall was orchestrated solely because of his sexuality. If ever there is an example of how terribly LGBT people were treated historically, it is this one. Wilde, just like Alan Turing later, was one of Britain’s greatest minds, whose brilliance was cut down in its prime simply because of the gender of the people he loved. And the effects of this are captured brilliantly here. He was a writer, comedian, performer, aesthete, social commentator, quasi-philosopher and Everett has captured Wilde’s very essence in this very strong biopic.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS.