Oscar Wilde has been portrayed on screen several times already, most notably by Peter Finch in 1960 and by Stephen Fry in 1997. Now it’s Rupert Everett’s turn to ‘step up if you think you’re Wilde enough.’ Here, he’s gone the full Orson Welles: writing, directing and starring in this rather doleful look at the author’s decline after his brutal imprisonment for the ‘crime’ of homosexuality.
When we first meet Wilde in The Happy Prince, he’s a bloated, shambling vestige of his former self, living in squalid digs in Paris, dependent on handouts from near-strangers and a meagre monthly allowance from his long-suffering wife, Constance (Emily Watson). The story then cuts back in time to his release from prison, where he’s met in France by faithful friends, Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), both of whom are keen to encourage him to rekindle his writing career. They urge him to stay away from Alfred Bosie Dougas (Colin Morgan), his former lover, but Oscar simply cannot help himself and, pretty soon, he and ‘Bosie’ are sharing a rat-infested apartment in Naples, living far beyond their means and squandering what little goodwill remains for them.
This is most emphatically a ‘warts and all’ story. Bosie comes across as insufferably unpleasant and, to be honest, Wilde isn’t particularly likeable either, demonstrating a callous tendency to exploit those who care about him. It would have been nice, perhaps, to see a few more flashbacks to his heyday, in order to make us fully appreciate the charm he must once have possessed, a charm that in his latter years is wearing somewhat thin. As it stands, this is unremittingly sad stuff, as we are witness to his inexorable slide towards ignominious death. Still, there’s little doubting the power of Everett’s performance, which has the kind of grandstanding appeal that often attracts Oscars (think Gary Oldman as Churchill). The era is convincingly evoked and the use of Wilde’s popular fairy tale to frame the film is a nice conceit. There’s plenty to admire, but not really an awful lot to enjoy.
Harrowing and desperately bleak, The Happy Prince serves to remind us of one of history’s greatest injustices and the principal characters who played a part in it. It’s nobody’s idea of a fun night at the cinema, but it’s nevertheless a story that needs telling.