Rupert Everett’s film about the final days of Oscar Wilde evokes the downfall of a genius, and has resonances of the actor’s own career
The Happy Prince
Starring: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson
Directed by: Rupert Everett
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Running time: 105 minutes
By Jay Stone
In 1895, Oscar Wilde was found guilty in a British court of gross indecency — that is, he was a homosexual — and was sentenced to two years at hard labour in prison. He was released in 1897 and died three years later, in self-imposed exile in France, of meningitis.
Rupert Everett’s story of those final years, called (with rather heavy-handed irony) The Happy Prince, looks at the sad and dire decline of a dandy, once the toast of English theatre, who is reduced to begging strangers for a few pounds to keep him in absinthe or, wonderfully, to buy all the snowdrops from an attractive young man selling flowers in bars. The man who once wrote that he could resist everything but temptation has now lost everything but his arch wit. “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” he says, as he lies in bed, terminally ill. “One of us has got to go.”
The Happy Prince — the name of one of Wilde’s short stories for children — is a passion project that is also, in a sense, an attempt to reclaim Everett himself. The actor, once the toast of cinema (Another Country, My Best Friend’s Wedding) was found guilty in Hollywood of being uncastable — that is, he is an uncloseted homosexual — and found that he could no longer get work.
”I decided to create a role for myself,” Everett writes in the film’s press notes. “If no one else would employ me I would employ myself.”
He wrote The Happy Prince, directed it, and stars as Wilde, and although he is accomplished in all three roles, he had to call on several famous friends, including Emily Watson, Colin Firth and Tom Wilkinson, to take on small roles to ensure the movie would get made. They are helping the filmmaker in the same way that their characters came to the aid of Wilde in his time of need.
The result is a dark and textured study of a great man trying to maintain his panache in reduced circumstances. Looking slightly bloated (the makeup prosthetics are superb), wary, and exhausted, but never defeated, Everett fully inhabits a role you suspect he may know too well. It opens in Paris, with Wilde lumbering out of a dank bar and stumbling home to a small flat where he owes money for rent, although not before being accosted by a British visitor who slips him a few pounds for old time’s sake. Typically, he gives some away and spends the rest on alcohol.
The movie drifts back and forth in time, so we can see the imperiously confident playwright at the triumphant opening of his play The Importance of Being Earnest, and later during his humiliation in Reading Goal as a prisoner with a shaved head. In transit, he is kept chained to a guard at a train station where members of the public spit on him.
Wilde recovers somewhat in exile, but he no longer has the heart to write and his finances are a constant source of peril. When he does have money, he spends it on alcohol and young men. Being recognized was a danger. His fame had become infamy.
For a while, he is reunited with the man who was at the source of his downfall, the young and beautiful Lord Alfred Douglas, or Bosie (Colin Morgan), a feckless youth who seems too ready to abandon Oscar for other, more immediate pleasures. Wilde is aided by old friends, including the writer Reggie Turner (Firth), but he’s clearly on a downward spiral and Everett the director expertly evokes the harsh back alleys and louche salons of the broken genius. Emily Watson is memorable in a few scenes as Wilde’s estranged wife and Wilkinson has a very funny cameo near the end as a minister called to give the playwright his last rites. He does it with a dispatch that makes you think he must be double-parked.
Everett’s screenplay holds the plot together with a not-entirely-successful device of Wilde reciting The Happy Prince — whose themes are the importance of love amid the ruination of life — to his own children and then to a street urchin whom he has befriended. The metaphor feels second-hand, but the performance never wavers. Wilde is the role Everett was born to play. We hope it is not the one he was born to live.
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