“The Happy Prince”

 

            Golden-Globe-nominated actor Rupert Everett is the writer, director, and the star of this Oscar Wilde biopic.  Everett does not bother with any kind of sequential story line.  We get snippets of Wilde's life, and we're left to our own devices to piece together the vignettes into some discernible narrative.

            Oscar Wilde was married, to Constance (Emily Watson), and had two sons, but Oscar Wilde was also gay, at a time when it was literally against the law.  After considerable success as a writer and playwright, Wilde became a celebrity in late 19th-century London, as well as Paris, which emboldened his homosexual lifestyle.  He frequented the infamous underground bars and bathhouses, but he also publicly took up with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as “Bosie” (Colin Morgan).  Eventually Wilde was tried and imprisoned, for two years of hard labor.  But Director Everett chooses not to dwell on the arrest, trial, or prison time, showing us only Wilde having his head shaved and locked behind a closed door.  Mr. Everett seems much more interested in developing the relationship between Wilde and Bosie, which came at the expense of both his marriage to Constance as well as his closest friendships in London society, including the jilted Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas).

            In “The Happy Prince,” we see Wilde's flamboyance, and we hear his great command of the English language, and we sense his great ambivalence about choosing his gay lifestyle over being with his wife and sons.  What we don't see is some of the literary brilliance that produced the play “Salome,” or the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”  The title, “The Happy Prince,” by the way, is not a description of Wilde's demeanor so much as it is a reference to a series of children's fairy tales which he wrote, and which he delighted telling to children, first to his sons when they were very young, and then to street urchins he would later encounter in his less illustrious days.  Toward the end, Wilde is a broken down, penniless old drunk, and is so ill that he's hallucinating.  He sees Constance in a vision, as well as his sons when they were much younger.  He vividly remembers both the adulation of the theater audiences, as well as the jeering mobs after he was arrested.   Here, Oscar Wilde is portrayed as a man who could instantly impress everybody around him, but over a period of time, he would also disappoint everyone with his serial self-indulgence, which prevented him from being faithful to anyone except his own whims.  On his deathbed, he receives the “last rites” from a priest, which raises the theological question of absolution, without really resolving whether Wilde experienced a genuine deathbed conversion to Christianity.  (The priest, played admirably by Tom Wilkinson, memorably states that repentance can well take place between the stirrup and the ground.)

            Rupert Everett's performance is noteworthy, especially his prolific command of both English and French, but his pet project film needs editing.  It's a period piece that will be appealing to Anglophiles, literary afficianados, and free spirits, but probably won't find a broader audience.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association