The Happy Prince: a character study of Oscar Wilde in exile and artistic decline

Rupert Everett, “The Happy Prince” (2018)

A labour of love, of much research over the years on the life and work of Irish-British writer Oscar Wilde, is this character study by Rupert Everett who not only directs the film but wrote the script and plays Wilde as well. The plot is skeletal to the point of non-existence and follows Wilde’s last years after his release from prison in 1897 for engaging in homosexual activities with younger, lower-class men: he goes into self-exile in France and reunites with Lord Alfred Douglas aka Bosie (Colin Morgan) despite the latter and his father the Marquess of Queensberry having been a cause of Wilde’s downfall and eventual imprisonment. Against the objections of his friends Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), Wilde flees to Naples with Bosie where they spend lavishly on “gentlemen’s parties” but are forced to separate when their respective families cut off their allowances for continuing to see each other. Wilde returns to Paris where, depressed and alone, spurned by polite society, he finds solace in absinthe and in befriending two young brothers, the older of whom becomes his rent-boy. To both brothers, especially the younger, Wilde tells them the story of the Happy Prince. From then on, the narrative trajectory is on a downward slide, as Wilde writes very little and his health declines from a combination of meningitis and an old prison injury to his head flaring up again.

Wilde’s tumultuous and colourful three years in exile contrast with the restricted life his crippled wife Constance (Emily Watson) and their two young sons are forced to lead, to avoid public scrutiny and scorn. After Constance’s death, her relatives make sure the children never see their father again and this causes Wilde anguish. Another sub-plot that stays mostly undeveloped is the rivalry between Bosie and Ross for Wilde’s affections which continues even at Wilde’s funeral.

Everett’s portrayal of Wilde with all his flamboyance, his wit and selfish appetites is a passionate and heartfelt tour-de-force that anchors the entire film and carries it all the way to the end. While his punishment was severe and undeserved, and his health was affected by imprisonment to the extent that his life expectancy was severely reduced, Wilde is determined to live his life to the full in the way he wants, even if this means losing access to his children and possibly ending up in a poorhouse. He does become very religious but even there his newfound Catholicism must take second place to his pursuit of hedonism and aestheticism. At the same time he is persecuted by the very people who used to laud his plays and other writings, and his ability to live how he wants depends very much on his in-laws who control his and Constance’s purse-strings. By the way he lives his life, Wilde calls attention to the hypocrisy of the society that alternately flatters and spurns him, and ultimately destroys him. It is not difficult to see why Wilde is drawn to Catholicism: he sees in the suffering and martyrdom of Jesus Christ his own persecution, and from that obtains comfort and learns to accept his suffering as part of his destiny.

The other actors know when the spotlight is on them and when they should get out of Everett’s way. Watson is a pleasure to watch even if most of her roles these days barely challenge her abilities and are of the motherly support stereotype. Firth underplays his role as Turner and Tom Wilkinson all but steals every scene he appears in as the priest who baptises Wilde.

The film emphasises Wilde’s acceptance of the humiliations that come with his celebrity and subsequent notoriety, and his determination to live his life as he sees fit, however shallow and self-centred his decisions might be. He learns to find beauty and radiance in even the most squalid and impoverished situations. The Victorian society which condemns Wilde and casts him off for being true to his nature does not come in for much criticism.