Written, directed, and starring Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde; supported by a stellar cast including Emma Watson, Colin Morgan, Tom Wilkinson, and Colin Firth.
“DYING BEYOND HIS MEANS”
THE HAPPY PRINCE is not a happy movie, and it’s not really about a prince. The title comes from a curious fairy tale written by Oscar Wilde in 1888, about a beautiful statue brought down from sublime innocence to sordid reality by the sorrows of the world, leaving behind only an unbroken heart. We flash back to Wilde telling the story to his two sons at times throughout the film. It’s the linking device that binds together the free flow of images past and present.
Viewers relatively unfamiliar with Wilde’s life will not see the parallels between the fairy tale and Wilde’s life during the years after his imprisonment in 1896 for two years at hard labor. Immediately before his conviction and incarceration for the “crime” of homosexuality, Wilde had been a sort of “prince,” the witty and boastful toast of the London stage. His greatest play, The Importance of Being Earnest had lately packed in audiences. But within a matter of months all had come to smash. For two years he suffered greatly as he was passed from prison to prison, barren cell to barren cell, forced to endure gruesome privations that nearly broke him.
A recent book, Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years, by Nicholas Frankel, tells the whole sadly fascinating story of his decline from his release from Reading Gaol in 1897 to his death in Paris in 1900. And now THE HAPPY PRINCE retells events with remarkable fidelity to the historical record, accurately documenting the restless shifts in locations, the struggles for money, even down to the pathetic scene where a priest is called in to conduct a last-minute absolution to Wilde on his deathbed. Which is to say that aside from moments of witty badinage in his best epigrammatic manner, and of boisterous gaiety from the drink-sodden Wilde in the cafes and with his Italian rent-boys, there is little attempt to varnish over events, no false romanticism on display, no sidestepping the spectacle of a man seeming willing his own decline and death. His words, “I run to my ruin,” are all too true. Indeed, one of the chief fascinations of the Wilde story is that very fact—that he seems to have done everything he could to encourage his own downfall. Was there in him what Edgar Allan Poe once described as an “Imp of the Perverse” that impelled him to stage-managing his downfall, as if to imitate the “art” of the fairy tale?
At the same time, the cast of THE HAPPY PRINCE is so skilled and the sheer craft of the movie-making so expert, that the free-flow shifting of events in time and space is deftly executed and, ironically, a pleasure to watch. And as excruciating at times as is the narrative—flashbacks to the privations of his imprisonment, the sordid details of his heavy drinking, his sexual indulgences, and the fatal attraction to Lord Alfred Douglas (the charismatic and heartless youth who played such an important part in Wilde’s life, before and after his incarceration)—the drama remains fascinating and compelling. Now, although Lord Douglas—affectionately called “Bosie” by the besotted Wilde—is here an unalloyed monster, I should note that for some historians Douglas’ role in the whole business has been unfairly impugned.
The jury’s still out on that.
If I must cite a lapse or two in this otherwise faultless narrative, it’s the unwelcome intrusion a couple of time of an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony. The music of this late 19th century Russian homosexual is obviously yanked in to corroborate the pathos of Wilde’s last days. Sorry, it’s just too obvious in a movie that is otherwise canny and subtle in its effects.