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.
A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems: The Collected Poems of A E Housman
(Penguin Classics, paperback, 2010, ed. Nick Laird)
Housman was a Professor of Latin at London then Cambridge universities, but was also a hugely popular poet, whose best-known collection, A Shropshire Lad, is a brilliant evocation of a pre-First World War rural England. Its theme of the transience as well as the glory of youth had a particular resonance with those who went through the horrors of the First World War.
The poems in A Shropshire Lad reminded soldiers on the Western Front of the beauty of the English countryside, while their frequent reference to early death had a contemporary poignancy for the families at home who lost their sons, brothers and sweethearts in the carnage of war.
One of his shortest poems, (not from A Shropshire Lad, but included in this collection), is often used at services on Armistice Day, as an alternative to Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen and its famous ‘They Shall Grow Not Old…’
Housman’s few lines are a concise tribute to those who put patriotic duty before their own safety - and a poignant acknowledgement of the terrible price that such an attitude had for a whole generation:
Here dead we lie, because we did not choose
to live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose,
but young men think it is, and we were young.
Keats House, Hampstead and the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, Rome
The London home of John Keats, the Romantic poet (Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, On Autumn…) who died tragically young, aged 25, in 1821 after a long illness, was once two houses but was converted into one building some years after his death. Keats actually died in Rome, where he had gone in a vain attempt to improve his health. The house where he died, at the side of the Spanish Steps, is now a museum to him, while his London home has also been a museum since the 1930s.
Keats lived in the Hampstead house, originally called Wentworth Place, with a friend, next door to a young woman, Fanny Brawne, with whom he fell in love. Their romance was brilliantly caught in the 2009 film Bright Star, written and directed by Jane Campion, based on Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats. It starred Ben Whishaw as John Keats and Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne.
It was while living in Hampstead that Keats wrote many of his best poems, between 1818 and 1819. The house, located close to Hampstead Heath, has a relaxed and gentle atmosphere and is worth a visit by anyone interested in learning more about him.
Similarly, the building where he died in Rome should be seen by visitors to the city. Now called the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, it commemorates Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who also died in Italy, drowning at Lerici, on the Italian Riviera, aged 29 (in 1822). Walking into the room where Keats died is an extraordinary experience.
Keats was buried, and Shelley’s ashes interred, at the Protestant cemetery in Rome. Keats’ tombstone has the inscription, chosen by himself, ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’. The poet chose it out of bitterness at a life cut short and his belief that his name, and work, would fade from the public consciousness almost immediately. In fact, he became and remains one of the most admired poets of all time…