The Happy Prince review – Rupert Everett is magnificent in dream role as dying Oscar Wilde
Directed by and starring Everett, this poignant dramatisation of Wilde’s final years in exile is a powerful parable of passion and redemption
Monday 22 January 2018
|Rupert Everett in The Happy Prince|
t is a part he was born to play, and he does it with exactly the right kind of poignantly ruined magnificence. Rupert Everett has written, directed and starred in this gripping drama about Oscar Wilde’s final years: his disgraced exile-agony in Naples and Paris on being released from prison after the conviction for “gross indecency”. This was the result of his indiscreet affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, whose enraged, reactionary father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had provoked Wilde’s catastrophic libel action following an accusation of his “posing as a somdomite”. Queensberry’s famously odd misspelling is silently corrected in this film’s opening titles. Over the closing credits – like The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing – it gives us the infuriating information that its subject has been posthumously “pardoned” by the British authorities. It’s Wilde (and Turing) who should be doing the pardoning.
Everett’s movie is expertly interspersed with flashbacks to Wilde’s great days and to his initial wary optimism on first arriving in France on the boat train. But the movie shows him living and dying in squalor and illness, succumbing to the delayed shock of his prison nightmare, jeered at and spat on by the expatriate Brits who recognised him, unprotected by his quibbling pseudonym “Sebastian Melmoth” – that two-word creation which was his final literary work of drollery.
Out of prison, Wilde had horrified his friends by resuming the destructive relationship with the exquisite, duplicitous Bosie (Colin Morgan), which causes the termination of the tiny allowance from his humiliated ex-wife Constance (Emily Watson) and endangers Bosie’s own income, leaving them nothing to live on. It’s the beginning of the end. Oscar treats his loyal allies Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) with ungrateful negligence, but Everett imagines him, in extremis, befriending a young Paris rent boy and his tough kid brother and whimsically holding them spellbound with his fairytale The Happy Prince. In happier times, he would recite to his equally entranced sons this story of a statue who allows a swallow to denude him of all his gold to feed the poor. In Everett’s hands, the tale becomes an ambiguous parable for Wilde’s passion and (possible) redemption, the unhappy prince who makes a lonely discovery that love is the only thing worth worshipping.
The story of Wilde’s post-prison ordeal is something most movies nervously turn away from. Stephen Fry’s film Wilde (1997) halted after a sentimental embrace between the reunited Oscar and Bosie in Naples; Ken Hughes’s The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) had Oscar – played by Peter Finch with the trace of an Irish accent – coolly refusing to speak to Bosie on the railway station platform before he headed off to his unimaginable future. As in those films, Everett likes to give us the famous lines from The Ballad of Reading Gaol in voiceover: “Each man kills the thing he loves …” But Everett takes us through the moment-by-moment horror of humiliation and poverty, which Wilde brazens out with gallows humour and wit as best he can. He vomits in agony on his deathbed before declaiming: “Encore du champagne!” Everett has clearly been influenced by David Hare’s 1998 stage play The Judas Kiss, in which Everett played Wilde, and also perhaps by Peter Ackroyd’s 1983 novel The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde.
Everett has a great moment when Oscar bursts into tears on being reunited with Bosie – and another, when he is recognised in France by a bunch of British rowdies who are hateful and homophobic (although that second concept is not something that anyone present would have recognised, perhaps not even Wilde himself). The hooligans chase Oscar, Robbie and Reggie into a church where Oscar faces them down by yelling: “The natural habitat of the hypocrite is England! Go there and leave me in peace!” Hypocrisy is the key. Polite society was prepared to turn a blind eye to homosexual assignations if they were conducted within a proper carapace of secrecy and shame. There was no immediate objection to casual sex with the lower orders, who could be bought and bought off. A flaunted connection with the Queensberry family was a class transgression. Shrewdly, Everett shows Wilde with a portrait of Queen Victoria by his deathbed. He died one year before her, and the film hints that Wilde’s vindictive treatment was part of the ugly sense of shame and mortification at Romantic and aesthetic indulgence which the manly slaughter of the first world war was supposed to redeem.
What was Wilde’s life in exile really like? Has this movie imagined a world of tragically defiant barbs where, perhaps, none existed? Were his final days actually spent in a kind of defeated silence, the theatrical facade of his former celebrity blowtorched away? It’s impossible to know. But this film is a deeply felt, tremendously acted tribute to courage.
•This article was amended on 22 January to correct the surname of the lead actor in The Trials of Oscar Wilde.
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The Happy Prince review / Rupert Everett is magnificent in dream role as dying Oscar Wilde