When it comes to classic literary figures, there are few that still lay claim to as much widespread name recognition as Oscar Wilde.
This is especially true, perhaps, within the LGBTQ community, where Wilde is considered an icon, a kind of gay great-grandfather whose flamboyant style and scandalous sensibilities have inspired generations of young queer people to live their own truth.
Even so, many people – if not most – are less familiar with the body of work he left behind than they are with his tragic personal history.
“The Happy Prince,” a new film about Wilde’s final days, is not likely to change that.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Wilde – who like countless men of his time was closeted and married to a woman – was having a love affair with the young Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, whose father was the Marquess of Queensbury. When the Marquess publicly called out Wilde as a “sodomite,” Wilde attempted to sue him for libel – which backfired when the Marquess produced proof in court of Wilde’s same-sex liaisons. Because homosexuality was illegal at the time, the author was then tried and convicted for “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years in prison. Upon his release, with his health shattered and his reputation destroyed, he fled to France, where he briefly lived in poverty before dying at the young age of 46.
“The Happy Prince” – written and directed by out actor Rupert Everett, who also stars as Wilde – takes its title from a short story included by the author in a book of children’s fables. In the film, this bittersweet tale is spun by the author, in installments, to a pair of young companions – but apart from those segments, and a few pertinent lines from his final work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” the film draws very little from Wilde’s writings.
Instead, it takes a speculative journey into the mind of the great author as he lives out his last years – grappling with his conscience, re-examining his relationships, remembering his past, and coping with his declining health, all while maintaining his characteristic bemused detachment, and indulging in as much decadence as he can beg, borrow or manipulate his way into.
It’s a highly effective approach to a subject that is bigger than a two-hour movie can accommodate with integrity. Unlike most biopics, “The Happy Prince” eschews the usual formula of trying to cover an entire famous life in favor of focusing on a short, key period; by so doing, it avoids the usual pitfalls of contrivance and cliché that often give such films an inauthentic feel, allowing Wilde’s essence to be distilled into a sort of snapshot – illuminating his humanity, rather than his importance.
Everett fares well in his debut as a writer and director. His film – a passion project ten years in the making – maintains the aesthetic of a period piece without becoming stodgy, and his ever-fluid camera allows for imaginative flights of fancy which transport us in and out of Wilde’s memories and fantasies without confusing us. His screenplay sharply weaves the ongoing themes of Wilde’s life and work – the embrace of hedonism, the prodigious classical knowledge, the egalitarian humanism that contrasted his savagely sly observations of society – into an intimate character piece which examines the great man as he confronts his conflicted nature in the face of his own mortality.
His most impressive work, however, is in front of the camera. Almost unrecognizable under makeup and prosthetics, he gives the performance of his career; complex, conflicted, cruel and combative yet caring and compassionate, he delivers an insightful and layered look at this legendary figure that makes him not only likable – at times despite himself – but entirely relatable. Above all, he captures the bravado and wit for which Wilde is perhaps most famous, and shows us a man determined to be completely himself even during the most difficult and degraded time of his life.
Surrounding him is an excellent supporting cast. Colin Morgan provides a “Bosie” as charismatic and appealing as he is vain and shallow; contrasting his fickleness are the easy charm of Colin Firth and the earnest sincerity of Edwin Thomas as the last remaining loyal friends from Wilde’s circle; and Tom Wilkinson has a show-stealing turn as an Irish priest. The only disappointing note comes from Emily Watson – a superb actress, but saddled here with the dour and thankless role of Wilde’s wife, Constance.
Seen simply as biographical fiction, “The Happy Prince” is a solid enough film – but it would have little contemporary relevance without its keen awareness of the homophobia at the very root of its story. Within the context of its late Victorian setting, it explores the subject with an immediacy that will resonate with every queer audience member who has ever felt the humiliation, shame and fear of living in an environment of bigotry. In one particularly harrowing sequence, Wilde and his cohorts are taunted and chased by a gang of young men; it’s an unexpected interruption, a jolting reminder of the stories of anti-gay violence that pop up in our news feeds today. The fall from grace experienced by Wilde after his sexuality was exposed is easily intellectualized by historical distance, but situations such as this one – and others throughout the film – make it chillingly personal.
This layer of social commentary gives “The Happy Prince” an added weight; but ironic though its title may be, it’s ultimately a pleasing affair. It is, after all, nearly two hours spent with one of the brightest wits in history, a larger-than-life personality who said, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” Thanks to the loving treatment he gets in the hands of Everett and his stellar cast, it’s the most enjoyable tale of degradation and despair you’re likely to see this year.
“The Happy Prince” is now showing for a limited release in Los Angeles.