‘The Happy Prince’
- Written and Directed by: Rupert Everett
- Starring: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Colin Morgan, Emily Watson, Edwin Thomas and Tom Wilkinson
If Rupert Everett’s new film feels deeply personal, it’s because the star has been working on The Happy Prince for some time. As writer, director and star, Everett first began looking for funding for the film, about the last years of Oscar Wilde’s life, around a decade ago. Having played the writer before on stage, and starred in the film version of An Ideal Husband, he has finally finished this most passionate of projects.
Everett does not play the Wilde of popular culture, or the one portrayed by Stephen Fry in 1997’s Wilde, but instead focuses on the writer’s ignominious, tragic final years. Having served a two year prison sentence for ‘Gross Indecency’, the once celebrated Oscar Wilde finds himself outcast from society, relying on the kindness of friends and allowance from his ex-wife (Emily Watson) to sustain him. While he intends to rebuild his old life, old habits and pasts passions drive him further toward ruin.
The film is book-ended with scenes from Wilde’s final days, a destitute begging for drinks on the streets of Paris, having burned every friendship and spent every penny. The majority of the film, however, focuses on his exile to France and the tug-of-war between the men that loved him. On one shoulder, the earnest Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), a caring admirer who wants what’s best for Wilde, but is far too sensible to hold his attention. On the other shoulder is Bosie, played by Colin Morgan as a vile, selfish hedonist who desires Wilde’s attention but puts no thought to his fate. Beautifully shot, the story has a tragic inevitability about it as Wilde rages against the hypocritical society that exiled him, while also giving in to his demons. A recurring theme is The Happy Prince, a fairy story Wilde tells his children which features the line “there is no mystery as great as suffering”. As dramatised as the events of the film may be, it’s a perfect for this story. An early scene sees Wilde confronted by a fan, devastated by his condition, only to be threatened by her husband. In both instances, we flash back to Wilde on stage, observing both characters applauding him. One of his greatest punishments was not the lack of romantic love, but the death of adoration his work attracted.
Haggard and overweight, Everett puts all he has into the performance. Imbuing Wilde with a kind of faded charisma, he staggers through the film desperately clinging to those who may help him turn his life around. The impressively assembled cast can only stand and watch as their hero falls, however. Colin Firth makes a brief appearance as one of Wilde’s benefactors, a man greatly aware of his friend’s ability to break hearts. Aside from Wilde, Thomas’ Robbie is the most unfortunate of characters, a love struck younger man who maybe could fix his idol, if only he loved him back. This is echoed in one superb scene by Wilde’s wife (Watson), torn between the pain she’s experienced and the love she feels.
Wilde’s treatment is all the more horrific when viewed through modern eyes. While some of his physical ailments were self-inflicted, the exile and mental trauma he experienced simply for being gay is horrific, and as a director Everett doesn’t spare us his torment. One flashback scene, where a shackled Wilde is turned on at Clapham Junction station, is the stuff of nightmares. In another, the author bellows “what more do you want?” to a group of young men taunting him, giving a face to both the bigotry of the time and its victims. Much like The Imitation Game, the film explores the barbaric attitudes toward male homosexuality, as well as the bitter irony of last year’s posthumous ‘pardoning’ of Wilde and thousands of others. A very modern lesson from a classical source.
In terms of film making, The Happy Prince is a gorgeous eulogy for a character who, behind the wit, came to a tragic end. While timelines may shift uncomfortably at times, the passion both in front and behind the camera always shines through.
The Happy Prince is released in the UK 15th June 2018.