Wilde On Screen

April 3, 2019
One of the great literary wits of all time, we look at Oscar Wilde on the big screen, from adaptations and reimaginings to biopics (including this week's The Happy Prince) and bit parts.

THE HAPPY PRINCE (2019) 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, and appearing in director Oliver Parker’s adaptations of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and The Importance Of Being Earnest. The Happy Prince 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. 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. Robert W. Monk

WILDE (1997), OSCAR WILDE (1960) & THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE (1960) Oscar Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas – and his battles with his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry – is also at the heart of these three earlier biopics, which mainly follow events in Wilde’s life before those depicted in The Happy Prince. 1997’s Wilde is obviously allowed to be less veiled about the writer’s homosexuality, but the duelling 1960 productions are also strong depictions of the story. Writer, essayist, commentator, actor and comic, Stephen Fry, is a noted fan of Oscar Wilde, and was literally born to play his literary hero, and his performance in Wilde is a true joy to behold, while Jude Law embodies a particularly sniveling Bosie. The famously campy and witty Robert Morley is an equally characteristic pick to play Wilde in 1960’s Oscar Wilde, though Aussie-born Peter Finch is a far more left field casting choice in that same year’s The Trials Of Oscar Wilde, but rises admirably to the occasion. Jackie Shannon

PERE-LACHAISE (PARIS JE T’AIME) (2006) Oscar Wilde makes an appearance in horror master Wes Craven’s (Scream, The Hills Have Eyes) decidedly non-horror entry in the anthology film, Paris Je T’Aime, in which a series of noted directors tell brief stories across The City Of Lights’ widely diverse neighbourhoods, or arondissements. In “Pere-Lachaise”, Craven avoids his usual scary tactics and opts for something a little more fantastic. Set in the famous Pere-Lachaise cemetery, two quarrelling lovers (Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer) get an unexpected visit from one of the cemetery’s famed residents – Oscar Wilde, no less – who offers up some sagely advice on the wily ways of the heart. In a very odd casting choice, Wilde is played by American director, Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election, Nebraska, The Descendants), in his one and only credited acting gig. Gaynor Flynn

VELVET GOLDMINE (1998) Though an ersatz rock biopic borrowing rampantly from the dazzling lives of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, Todd Haynes’ wild and wonderful Velvet Goldmine also worships at the gaudy altar of another icon. In its opening minutes, the film giddily posits that Oscar Wilde was actually an alien baby left on the doorstep of a working class Irish couple, and that it was his very spirit that birthed Glam Rock in the 1970s. Sure, Wilde isn’t actually a major character in Velvet Goldmine, but you can literally feel him at play in the film’s very bones. Jackie Shannon

DORIAN GRAY (2009) “You have only two things worth having – youth and beauty.” Oscar Wilde’s literary devil child, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, gets dusted off in a chilling remake by noted fan, Oliver Parker, who has also filmed Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband. Impressionable Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes) arrives for his first season in London, whereupon the fresh faced youth is seized upon by cynical Lord Wotton (Colin Firth). Looking to corrupt the lad’s impossible naivete, he re-educates Gray about the virtue of virtue. In doing so, the youngster unwittingly barters his soul in a pact with the devil: a portrait of him will age while Gray does not, setting him free to indulge his every whim. And indulge he does. But as Gray works harder and harder to protect his great secret from those who he now cares about, tragedy advances with the inevitably of age. Wilde’s self-loathing leaps to the fore in Dorian Gray, perfectly encapsulated by Firth’s extraordinarily nuanced performance. As Gray lives an unbridled life that he dare not live himself, Wotton delivers an endless string of perfectly timed epigrams that point to the longing and the hatred. Firth is the perfect foil for Barnes’ puppy-ish Gray, even as the youngster becomes more like Wotton than the lusty Lord himself. Oliver Parker’s Dorian Gray is a winning blend of 19th century gothic filtered through 21st century zeitgeist. Colin Fraser

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (2002) Rupert Everett plays the rake to perfection in Oliver Parker’s adaptation of one of Oscar Wilde’s best loved Victorian comedies, updated somewhat from1890s England. In fact, the entire cast perform brilliantly, seeming to relish the exquisite wit of Wilde’s play without once overplaying their lines. It’s all there on the page and the actors simply breathe fresh life into this classic work. Parker also brings dexterity to his direction, with light touches of comic embellishment that are delightful and unexpected. Take, for example, his cinematic interpretation of Gwendolen’s (“our” Frances O’Connor) line that her true love’s name is burnt on her very soul. Reese Witherspoon as little Cecily proves that Gwyneth isn’t the only Yank who can pull off a British accent. Colin Firth is perfect as “Jack in the country…”, subtly exploiting the comic potential of every line, expression and reaction. Dame Judi Dench was born to play Lady Bracknell. Assisted by her outrageous hats and furs, she is every inch as formidable a presence as she ought to be. A special treat is seeing screen legend Edward Fox in the role of Algy’s long-suffering manservant. He may not have many lines, but each one is a gem of exemplary delivery and timing. Pauline Adamek

THE SELFISH GIANT (2013) The famous works of Oscar Wilde continue to inspire and resonate – and not just in the usual fashion. Amongst the traditional recreations of his writings still exists ample room for surprise, and for updating his observations to contemporary times. Taking cues from the great British social realist tradition, Clio Barnard’s adaptation of Wilde’s 1888 short story, The Selfish Giant, offers one such unexpected appropriation. The writer/director crafts a devastating rendering of Wilde’s children’s tale. Within the grey estates of modern Yorkshire, best friends, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), fill the dreary hours with the usual youthful tomfoolery. The lads are neither accepted by their peers, nor afforded the benefit of a fitting male role model in their respective low income families. Instead, they find their own fun as outsiders left to their own devices. Their latest jaunt, salvaging and stealing wire to earn cash, seems the perfect pastime until the local scrapyard owner (Sean Gilder) moderates his encouragement. Barnard takes as much from her source as she does from her chosen style, clearly influenced by Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Her use of untested talent adds authenticity, with Chapman and Thomas never anything less than nuanced and naturalistic. The performances match the unassuming surroundings: they’re purposefully unpolished but poignantly precise, in one of the least likely but most heart wrenching interpretations of Wilde’s oeuvre. Sarah Ward

A GOOD WOMAN (2004) No one can deliver a bon mot quite like Oscar Wilde. And A Good Woman – based on Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan – is a reminder of just how witty this man could be. In this adaptation, Helen Hunt plays Mrs. Erlynne, a middle aged lady of dubious morals. Her habit of courting very rich – and very married – men leads to her being run out of town by a charge of angry wives. Penniless and desperate, Erlynne sets her sights on rich Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers), husband of the naïve and trusting Meg (Scarlett Johansson). Whilst holidaying in the luscious Italian Riviera, Meg discovers that Robert has been paying money to the notorious mistress. To add to the scandal, Meg finds herself pursued by the notorious playboy Lord Darlington, whilst Mrs. Erlynne inadvertently steals the heart of the sweet Lord “Tuppy” Augustus (Tom Wilkinson). Loyalty and fidelity are called into question, with members of society more than willing to add their two cents worth. In fact, the whispering makes for some of the best dialogue in the film (“It is absurd to divide people into good or bad,” rolls one line. “People are either charming or tedious”). Hunt seems slightly uncomfortable here as the brash “lady of ill repute”, but there’s so much to adore too. Johansson is restrained and mature, and Wilkinson is an absolute joy. But it’s the charm of the dialogue that makes A Good Woman so truly endearing. Marise Watson

SALOME’S LAST DANCE (1988) Noted cinematic loony, Ken Russell (The Devils, Tommy, Gothic), delivers a typically deranged take on the work of Wilde, with an unconventional adaptation of the great wit’s 1893 play, Salome, itself a retelling of a decidedly grim Biblical tale. Salome’s Last Dance sees Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) and his lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Douglas Hodge) arrive late at their friend’s brothel, where they are privy to a surprise staging of Wilde’s play, which has just been banned in England. Russell’s kinky hook? The play is performed by the brothel’s employees (read: prostitutes) and clients, leading to a decidedly sordid depiction of the story in which Salome (Imogen Millais-Scott) luridly begs – via a lascivious dance – her stepfather, King Herod (Stratford Johns), to bring her the head of the imprisoned John The Baptist (Douglas Hodge’s Bosie). Cheeky and insouciant, Salome’s Last Dance is just as you would imagine Wilde filtered through Russell would be. Jackie Shannon

The Happy Prince is released in cinemas on April 4.

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