GRAND TOUR POETRY
The Happy Prince
Rupert Everett’s film - which he wrote, directed and stars in - wonderfully evokes the final, ruined years of Oscar Wilde after being released from prison, having been jailed with hard labour from 1895 to 1897.
The film captures Wilde’s charm, along with his increasing physical collapse, his desperate lack of money - ‘Like dear St Francis of Assisi, I am wedded to poverty. But in my case the marriage is not a success’ - and his life in Paris and Naples.
In the latter he shares a villa with Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie' to his friends), his lover and nemesis, played in the film by Colin Morgan. Though the film must surely earn Everett an Oscar (no pun intended) for Best Actor, Morgan equally deserves one for Best Supporting Actor. His Lord Alfred is demanding and spoilt, with a very aristocratic sense of entitlement, but he’s also strikingly attractive, elegant and highly-sexed. These qualities, plus his youth - and title - explain why Oscar is so besotted with him. Jude Law gave a seemingly definitive performance as Bosie in the 1997 film Wilde, but Colin Morgan’s is its equal.
What isn’t made clear in the film, but was very well brought out in David Hare’s play, The Judas Kiss - which, in the West End, starred Everett as Wilde, and Freddie Fox as Lord Alfred - is that Bosie was also an accomplished poet. It was he, not Wilde, who created, in ‘Two Loves’, the famous line: ‘I am the love that dare not speak its name’, and his ambitions as a writer were yet another reason Wilde fell for him.
Among other stand-out performances are Edwin Thomas as Robbie Ross, Oscar’s devoted friend, whose ashes rest in the Epstein monument above Oscar’s grave in Paris. Emily Watson gives a quiet but forceful performance in the relatively thankless role of Wilde’s wife, Constance, whose health, it is suggested, was another of the casualties of his ‘feasting with panthers’.
The film makes clear the cost to Oscar of his being gay - he loses his liberty, his money, his country (he has to go into exile as soon as he’s released from prison, and adopts an alias, Sebastian Melmoth) as well as his career and any contact with his beloved young sons. However, it also points out the trail of destruction he leaves in his wake: his wife and children’s lives are shattered, while his need to be with Bosie also alienates him from his nearest friends, including, for a while, even the ever-loyal Robbie Ross.
Among several highlights of the film is the scene where Oscar, giddy with a gift of money from a female fan he unexpectedly meets in Paris, stands on a table in a nightclub and gives a fabulously engaging rendition of the Victorian Music Hall classic, ‘The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery’.
Another, beautifully written and performed, is when Robbie is in a carriage with an Irish priest, who he has asked to give the last rites to the dying Oscar. The priest, Father Dunne, is played by Tom Wilkinson, who in the 1997 Wilde played Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury.
This film took ten years to make, possibly because it may have seemed, whatever its merits, to be verging on a vanity project if the star not only acts in it but writes and directs it too. Yet Everett has proved, in several books, that he’s a highly talented writer as well as a leading actor. Far from being an indulgence, The Happy Prince confirms both these skills while showing him, in an astonishing debut, to be a seriously gifted director as well. The DVD comes out in October 2018, but if you can see it on a cinema screen, even better.
Oscar commented that we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. This film deserves all five of them.