Q&C Film Club: The Happy Prince

CULTURE: ROBERT INCE

Q&C gets an exclusive sneak preview of Rupert Everett’s long-mooted Oscar Wilde biopic, The Happy Prince, and praises its lavish and elegant take on the literary giant’s final years in exile.

The American writer William Giraldi recently said about the arcane way that we discover art: “Certain works of art have an occult way of finding us when we are most in need of them, of their example and wisdom and wit.”

When I think of the times that various works of art have divinely come to me at difficult periods during my life, I think of WB Yeats during the travails of adolescence, or Diana Athill after a particularly tricky break-up in my early 30s. Then there were the paintings of Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper when living alone for the first time having bought my first home.

WH Auden and Joan Didion’s luminous writings somehow trickled toward me after my father died, and I inhaled the sage-like words and quips of Oscar Wilde which have remained a mainstay since my university days. With the latter, so too it would seem to have been the case for Rupert Everett whose sumptuous new film, The Happy Prince, is testament not only to the actor’s life-long love of Wilde but a relentless ten-year campaign to get the film made.

In the end, its funding relied solely upon Everett’s friend, the bigger box-office draw, Colin Firth being in it which, playing Reggie Turner, he duly is. But it’s Everett’s instinctual and knowing portrayal of the literary colossus, thanks in part to a magnificent script, that overshadows anyone else.

It’s hard not be captivated by Everett’s brave, fragmentary and elegant drama, which he also writes and directs, and covers Wilde’s lesser known exiled years in Italy and France after leaving prison following a conviction for “gross indecency”.

Wilde’s magisterial downfall came about due to his infamous love affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. When Douglas’ enraged father, the Marquess of Queensberry, accused Wilde of being a sodomite, it provoked the famous writer into taking what turned out to be ruinous libel action. The rest is history.

Everett beautifully embodies the majestic defeat of Wilde

The film captures perfectly Wilde’s inglorious wilderness years living in squalor, diminished of spirit, living off hand-outs, before finally succumbing to illness. We see him roaming the streets of Paris, Normandy and Naples like an ailing flâneur, frequenting cafes, trying to engage in conversation and imparting his wisdom to anyone who’ll listen.

‘The imp of the perverse’ is what Edgar Allan Poe called that force that prompts us towards self-destruction and our own demise. Wilde had it in spades. Despite Bosie's influence hastening Wilde’s fall from grace, their brief reconciliation signalled the death knell. ‘I love him as I always did’, Wilde says, ‘with a sense of tragedy and ruin’. It all has echos of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s axiom: When love is not madness, it is not love.

Time and again, Wilde resists salvation from his literary executor Robbie Ross, played by inadvertently smouldering newcomer Edwin Thomas. Despite being free, Wilde remains a condemned man and is regularly subjected to hostility and violence by those who recognise him, his Sebastian Melmoth pseudonym only providing scant anonymity. It’s a salutary reminder of how homosexuality was still illegal in Britain not so long ago.

Everett beautifully embodies the majestic defeat of Wilde and it’s not hard to see what drew him to the hulking playwright’s story given its close parallels with his own career trajectory.

Of course Everett’s journey hasn’t been as tragic, but he still reached dizzying heights in his career, even welcomed briefly into the Hollywood firmament, before self-sabotage by way of bad behaviour, an over-opinionated persona, and being openly gay perhaps saw his bourgeoning A-list stardom swiftly truncated.

Whether it was institutionalised homophobia at play, or the vicissitudes of a superficial industry, the tale remains a parable of modern celebrity culture, perfectly illustrating how quickly ones star can wane. Like Wilde, and despite the vanity, ego and snobbery, Everett’s mistakes have made him entirely human, fascinating, appealing even.

a lavish and unique take on the poet and playwright’s doomed final years

Oscar Wilde has long been a mythic treasure chest of perfect aphorisms and anecdote, and here we see Everett’s version rhapsodising with perfect cadence in spite of his dying literary prowess. Despite the sadness at the heart of the tale, Everett injects appropriate levels of the famous Wildean joie de vivre into his portrayal, which prevents the film roaming into the realms of mawkish gloom.

If Nabokov’s belief that ‘human despair seldom leads to great truths’ was correct, then Wilde is the exception when he concludes somewhat toward the end: ‘Suffering is nothing where there is love. Love is everything’.

The abiding impression is a lavish and unique take on the poet and playwright’s doomed final years, and one which at its core is very much a love story. Here we have Wilde, unable to quite relinquish his passion for Bosie, Robbie Ross unable to eradicate his deep-rooted feelings for Wilde, while Bosie (a beautifully aloof Colin Morgan) seemingly incapable of loving anyone other than himself. The complexities of our romantic entanglements twas ever thus.

On the periphery of the tale is Constance (‘she ties me to life’), Wilde’s broken wife, played exquisitely by Emily Watson, and along with her two children, depicts her loss and sadness in aching detail, mirroring that of Wilde’s across the sea, his dwindling élan profoundly on display. He’s become a living void, a dignified and graceful nobody, ever hopeful of his happy ever after. But it wasn’t to be.

In extremis, amid swirling hallucinations on his deathbed, Wilde imagines his two estranged sons, sitting in rapturous anticipation for their father to read them the tale of The Happy Prince once more. The climax is heartfelt and yet unsentimental, while the pathos stays with you long after the final scenes.

In not giving up his long quest to get the film made, Everett has achieved an astonishing feat with his movie; an extraordinary portrait of Wilde, a tormented genius, both victor and vanquished, whose redemptive story resonates powerfully still over a century later. 

Terms like masterpiece have been bandied around, and it’s not that far off the mark. While time will tell if it’s as good as that, Everett has proved himself an assured and talented filmmaker and his film is a bold accomplishment. No doubt he’s glad he persisted. If this is the only film he ever makes, one senses he’d be absolutely content with that. And so he should.

The Happy Prince is released in cinemas this Friday.

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