The Happy Prince
Rupert Everett, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Beatrice Dalle, Anna Chancellor, Tom Wilkinson
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Rupert Everett takes centre stage in a role he was born to play, in this lustrous dramatisation of the last days of Oscar Wilde. Everett scripted and stars in his directorial debut, and clearly has much invested in it. He’s certainly had preparation for the role, having played the poet and playwright in the 2012 British play, The Judas Kiss. Happily for him, and the audience, The Happy Prince doesn’t disappoint.
The film focuses on Wilde’s exiled life in France and Italy after serving a prison term for ‘gross indecency’; a charge brought about by the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde’s paramour Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan). Wilde never fully recovered from his time in prison, either physically or emotionally; his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written after his release, calls attention to the grim sights witnessed and heard of, while incarcerated.
Capturing a dream-like state of memories and regrets, the film begins with the words of the titular Happy Prince, a fable Wilde wrote for children, and in Everett’s film displays the contradictions and unjustness of late 19th Century European life.
Wilde reads from the tale to his two young sons, later kept apart from him by estranged wife Constance (played with a sorrowful, almost ghostly, distance by Emily Watson), and we see a hazy and melancholy vision of London’s street life. The line, “there is no mystery so great as suffering”, serves as an introduction to both the film and the creator’s tormented state of mind.
Wilde, using the alias Sebastian Melmoth, taken from the lead character of Melmoth the Wanderer, a novel by his great-uncle Charles Maturin, wanders through a squalid hand-to-mouth, or drink and drugs to mouth, existence in Paris and Naples. Everett brilliantly displays the pain that Wilde suffered, with constantly animated features shifting from radiant smile to anguished grimace.
The pain is only added to by the mysteries of love. Still besotted with Bosie, despite his dependence on the father who betrayed him to the prehistoric laws of Victorian England, the two spend time together in Naples. It all ends abruptly when Bosie’s family, as well as Constance, who had been sending Wilde a little money, threaten to stop the allowance if the relationship continues.
At the crux of the film is the trio of Wilde, Bosie, and Robert Ross (Edwin Thomas), a friend and lover, and later the agent who cared for Wilde’s literary estate. The jealousies and rivalries between the dashing, vain and ultimately unforgiving Bosie and the loyal and kind Ross are dramatically brought out, particularly at a chaotic dinner drinks meeting between the three in France.
An imagining of Wilde’s dying dreams are the real point of reference at work; the film is literally an account of his last three years, so the events that are factually accurate are entwined with the personal moods and feelings that he may have thought of on his death bed in Paris. This darkly romantic vision is a world away from the entertaining storyteller of a thousand legends, but it is one that it is inextricably linked. Everett does justice to both man and story.