An Earnest Portrayal

Rating: 5

The Happy Prince

by Jason Solomons

Rupert Everett writes, directs and stars in the role of his life, as Oscar Wilde at the end of his life.

And he makes a stunning job of it, inhabiting the playwright in exile in Paris and Naples, embodying all his pain and his ecstasy.

Released from Reading gaol, Wilde fled to France and assumed the name of Sebastian Melmoth to hide out first in Dieppe, then Naples, fleeing the ridicule and ruin heaped on him in England by the notorious accusations of being a ‘somdomite’ [sic] by the Marquess of Queensberry.

Not too much is really known about this period in Wilde’s life, but in Everett's hands we feel the pain and the shame, the torture and the desperation of a genius wit surviving on instinct and the kindness of strangers. We feel the pinch of penury, the stabs of addiction and pangs of love for his wife Constance (Emily Watson) and two sons while we also understand the self-destructive passion for the feckless aristo Lord Alfred Douglas or ‘Bosie’ (Colin Morgan, turning on the arrogance and the beauty).

Everett pieces the story together in scenes and flashbacks, thumbnails and moments, many of them in dimly lit rooms. He’s entertaining the crowds in a rowdy bar with a rendition of ‘The Boy I Love’, then keeling over and waking up in the slums of Clignancourt, befriending urchin boys who offer him sex and whom he pays in drink and cocaine.

Wilde does, just about, maintain some patient friends and loyal supporters, represented by Edwin Thomas, as forlorn yet faithful publisher Robbie Ross, and Rupert’s old chum Colin Firth in a disappointingly thin role as Reggie Turner – still, it’s a nice bit of casting, recalling the fact that Roops and Col made a lovely Algy and Jack in a 2002 film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Far from that polished Wildean heyday, the atmosphere is now dingy and dirty and opiated, and yet there’s so much to admire in the lead performance: Rupert dazzles in both French and English, his jaw protruding, his hands embellishing, his eyes dancing until the soul practically dribbles away out of the corner of that misshapen mouth. Here’s a man ripe with poetry and thick with wit, but the words and the jokes are masking a deep agony.

This is a depressed, broken Wilde, an addict, and a victim, a man in a spiral and a cape, who can’t accept love or friendship but will take a fiver or a hit of absinthe from anyone. The peripatetic structure of the film keeps us on our toes and prevents it from ever becoming a wallow. The flashbacks to prison are chilling, as is the (fictitious?) scene of him in chains on Clapham Junction station surrounded by commuters baying their contempt and disgust.

Wilde’s is a gradual yet sad decline and Everett plays it like a big balloon with a slow puncture, the deflation of a series of defeats, punctuated by moments of fleeting glory, glimpses of that huge, showy talent.

Occasionally, we return to scenes of him in happier times, reading the titular short tale – about a statue who orders a swallow to peck off his gold leaf to give to the poor – as a bedtime story for his two sons. Wilde, in this late desperation on his Paris deathbed, recounts the same story to his new French boys. They are as rapt as they are bewildered at this man and his gift for poetic, fanciful embroidery.

For all the sadness here, Rupert’s fond yet frank imagining of his hero’s demise captures your heart and breaks it. Yes, it’s a film in the gutter, but always looking at the stars.