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The Happy Prince: Rupert Everett directs, writes and stars as Oscar Wilde
June 19, 2018
Rupert Everett has twinned himself with Oscar Wilde throughout his career: from 2012, in three runs of David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss, he played Wilde at his most notoriously disgraced, ruined by aristocrat lover Bosie and his father; in the early 2000s he starred in film adaptations of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest; and there’s kinship with Wilde too in his persona as a witty, mean gay man, who is also an author (of his own life – Everett has written two volumes of memoirs) and in his sharp charisma and instinct for performance, whether playing a character or himself.
It’s this avowed connection with Wilde that makes The Happy Prince sound promising. It took an arduous ten years to make and sees Everett direct, write, and star as Wilde, of course. It’s named after one of Wilde’s pre-exile children’s stories, written in 1888 at the height of his fame, and explores the last three years of his life, left relatively untouched at least by previous films, The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) and Stephen Fry’s Wilde (1997). So it’s baffling that The Happy Prince is a disappointingly bland addition to this canon, not much more than occasionally intriguing, but mostly just watchable. Given Everett’s long passion for such a glitteringly mythic figure, it’s a sad waste of potential for real drama and emotion, as well as verve, degraded glamour, and a damn good story. He details the aftermath of the notorious trial for Wilde’s so-called gross indecency and imprisonment at Reading: the retreat to continental Europe, where he is briefly reunited with Bosie (Colin Morgan) and wanders Rouen and Naples before finally arriving in Paris, where he dies of meningitis destitute but not wholly alone, consoled by his remaining friends: lovestruck literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and the writer Reggie Turner (Colin Firth).
Wilde became more myth than person well before his death in 1900; perhaps the inseparability of his intimate self and aura of glamour escapes even Everett. His whole being radiates pathos, courage and knowing bravado, but he fails to give himself memorable dialogue or enliven the characters whom he arranges like satellite planets around his sun. Glimpses of Wilde’s estranged wife, Constance, played with stiff distress by Emily Watson, incite sympathy and emphasise how little present she was in her husband’s life at its end, but it’s a waste of a great actress when set against the deadening amount of screen time afforded the gawping love interests Thomas and Morgan; they’re given little to do but attempt to either fall into or fall out of the dying man’s life.
Everett’s construction of Wilde’s persona, the way he delighted in being many versions of himself, but also the changes in his identity wrought only by necessity – by the steepness of his downfall – is thoughtful and imaginative, and a lot of fun. There’s great physicality to these changes, but it’s never pantomimish. It’s through our sense of Wilde’s body that we feel for him. In London, he’s a large, paternal presence reading to his young sons before going out, authoritative in full evening dress, ever the writer more famous for his fame. In Paris, his face is rouged, infected, or simply aging; the many close ups have a self-indulgent and grotesque effect, but there’s no off-putting bombast.
In this there is something of the decadent aesthetic in its broadest sense: rotting beauty, or the odour of ‘perfumed shit’ as Robbie Ross characterises one of Wilde’s letters to Constance. The film’s settings sometimes headily evoke a discomfiting, palpable mood: rat-infested but sparsely beautiful Neapolitan hotel rooms, the dingy, cavernous restaurant at Rouen station where the porter arrives every so often to scream the departures, peach-coloured skies over the tops of London houses which could belong to the dawn but are actually sunset’s.
The beauty of these scenes occasionally transgress the stock aesthetic boundaries of the watershed period drama (The Happy Prince is produced by BBC Films, incidentally). Perhaps a deeper flush of passion could’ve been found in more consistently meaningful and exciting visuals and saved the film from blandness, as Everett ends up being the only high point of his own film.
The Happy Prince is out now.
Words by Charlotte Palmer.
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