Film review | The Happy Prince

Compromised by amateurish tics that betray all the markings of a directorial debut, Rupert Everett’s take on the last days of Oscar Wilde nonetheless boasts an apposite note of decadent recklessness • 3/5 

The Happy Prince
The Happy Prince

The figure of Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) looms large in the literary and historical imagination, in no small part due to the the epoch-defining tragedy that characterises the playwright, poet and all-round norm-smashing Victorian-era aesthete’s twilight years.

Born to Anglo-Irish stock and distinguishing himself as a superlative classicist in his university years, Wilde would go on to become a hugely popular playwright, soon becoming synonymous for his biting wit characterised by a mastery of the quotable aphorism, and a dissection of the social mores that made up the society he found himself in – largely presented through effervescent and satirical plays such as the still-performed The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband.

However, while the audiences lapped up his ebullient social satires at the theatre, Wilde’s embrace of what can broadly be defined as the Aesthetic Movement pit him against the moral mainstream of the time. This loose movement was animated by a belief that art should exist independently of moral concerns and simply allow itself to allow its intrinsic beauty to unfold – a philosophy both explicitly stated and unfurled through fictional mechanisms in Wilde’s only novel, the perennial Gothic fantasia The Picture of Dorian Gray and its accompanying preface – a then-controversial and still oft-quoted mini manifesto which states that, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

But society would not, in the end, forgive Wilde his riskiest subversion – being queer. And it is in the embers of Wilde’s tragedy that actor Rupert Everett makes his directorial debut, starring as the man himself in what is, in the end, a darkly charming portrait of a fallen man raging against the dying of the light.

Brought low by the scandal caused when the extent of his relationship with the aristocratic brat Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan) is exposed during the fallout of a libel case instigated by Wilde against the young man’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, we are introduced to Wilde during his self-exile in Paris, after he’s estranged from both his wife Constance (Emily Watson) and their young children, and Victorian society at large. A physical and spiritual wreck in the wake of having suffered two years of imprisonment with hard labour for “gross indecency” in Reading Gaol, he enjoys the support of a small coterie of friends – most notably his literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and the novelist and journalist Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). But the ‘fatal attraction’ towards Bosie remains a potent pull for Oscar – especially when the financial troubles become unbearable.

Oscar Wilde was famously brought to life on the big screen by the actor, comedian and general polymath Stephen Fry in a 1998 film directed by Brian Gilbert, drawing heavy inspiration from Richard Ellmann’s magisterial and award-winning biography of Wilde’s life.

And while the earlier film is certainly the more fully-rounded cinematic experience of the two, Everett’s take on the final days of Wilde is not without its merits. For one thing, the fact that it limits itself to just the final years already gives the actor and filmmaker the luxury of focus, where  Gilbert’s more ambitious film had to resign itself to a collection of highlights. Everett can afford to lend texture to the glorious ruin that Wilde’s life had become, and there is a subversive pleasure to be had from watching the self-destruction unfold – not least because here is a Wilde never shorn of his wit and observational skills, even if this has now turned caustic in the face of reputational ruin and ill-health.

Shot mostly in darkened close-up with a foggy trim around its edges, this is a film that eschews the pornography of period drama – no masterful sweeping shots of landscapes or country estates, no visual comfort-food to be taken in obsessively lingered-on costume details. Instead, it’s a sometimes sad, but also sometimes cheeky portrait of a man who has been past the brink and doesn’t care about what you think of him any more.

Instead of the tragic arc of Wilde’s life that we’re used to seeing, Everett shows us the dying moments. But death is often not a fading away, but a death rattle. One that can have its own, strangely glorious melodies.

The verdict

A labour of love that refuses to be anything else – including, that is, a more fully-rounded dramatic experience – Rupert Everett’s tribute to Oscar Wilde is still worth experiencing, despite its myriad indulgences and the many amateur pitfalls it falls into along the way. If nothing else, it’s a refreshing break from cosseted period drama, and is shot through with a rebellious spirit that the tragic, taboo-smashing figure of Oscar Wilde would have thoroughly appreciated.