Director: Rupert Everett
15 | 1h 45min | Drama, History | 15 June 2018 (UK)
I know very little about the famous writer, socialite and wit-bomb dropper Oscar Wilde, beyond the basic rise-and-fall arc of his life that takes in his rise to fame in Britain as the mind behind The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Importance of Being Earnest, through to imprisonment and social outcast status following his outing as gay. That being said, writer/director Rupert Everett’s focus in The Happy Prince is on what happened after the fall, and taking a biopic into that space interested me. Perhaps unsurprisingly for an actor who has played Wilde several times on stage and screen, Everett does a fine job of presenting us with a tragically compelling Wilde who is impoverished and stricken by ill health, destitute in exile in Paris and Naples with nothing but a few street urchins to drink with and reflections on his period of success in London during the 1880s and 90s to sustain him.
Assisted by prosthetics, Everett gives us an alarmingly flabby, woozy and bedraggled figure who’s remaining reserves of humour are like the last fumes of jet fuel in a plane about to crash, though flashbacks messily scattered into the narrative allow us to see a bit of the man in his prime. He more than adequate transmits the sense of a fallen icon see-sawing now between preening, panicking, and self-destructive ‘fuck it’ moments; and all the more tragic for it. Just occasionally, some of the magnificence of past glories shines through, but it is a ruined magnificence now. For all Wilde’s still-powerful wit, this is a figure chronically dependent on the charity of friends but too self-absorbed to fully appreciate it, and too proud and reckless to make enough effort to get himself out of the hole of debt and booze. We see that, before his darkest hour arrived, he had resumed the destructive relationship with the snobby and duplicitous Bosie (Colin Morgan), which caused the termination of the tiny allowance from his humiliated ex-wife Constance (Emily Watson) and also endangered Bosie’s own income, leaving them nothing to live on. He also eventually resorts to the kind of fraudulent behaviour he used to savage others for: selling an unwritten play to three separate financial backers to keep destitution from the door.
The unflattering nature of this depiction of Wilde’s fall, and the fact there was enough emotional heft in the on-screen relationships to appeal to viewers like myself without too much knowledge of the real-life story, won my respect, as did the film’s willingness to acknowledge the pain Wilde caused his wife, herself in poor health, as well as the touching but imbalanced affection between Wilde and his devoted friend and lover Robbie (Edwin Thomas), one of the few companions to stick by him to the sad end. What the film lacks in giving us compelling theses about Wilde’s talent and motivations it makes up for in Everett’s passionate and poignant performance as a deeply human and flawed artist in decay. He was aiming for the stars, but ended up in the gutter after all.