The Happy Prince—(2018)

Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde. Photo by Wilhelm Moser, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

‘The Happy Prince’ Opens in America

You could be forgiven for thinking that a blog about Oscar Wilde might not provide the most objective forum for a film about Oscar Wilde—perhaps being too close to its subject to see it as one would ordinarily.

However, the opposite turns out to be true about The Happy Prince because it is no ordinary film. It warrants a specialist view being itself the work of an Oscar Wilde specialist.

Rupert Everett has played Wilde’s fictional characters both on stage and in film; he has already appeared as the real Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss on both sides of the Atlantic; and, after spending an age poring over Wilde’s works in homage to his patron saint, Everett has also spent the last ten years of his life taking on a tide of personal and industry challenges in order to craft this film.

It is an effort that lays bare a more compelling reason why the film should not be regarded as just another movie. And it is a reason Everett shares with the artist Basil Hallward (in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) who accepted that his portrait of Dorian was not just another painting. He confessed: “I have put too much of myself into it.”

Wilde explained this characteristically philosophical view of art when he said:

“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”

So it is with Everett, whose devotion during a decade of writing, directing, and now acting in a lifetime passion, might also be regarded as his art. Certainly, The Happy Prince is a highly personalized vision: a dark introspection with the protagonist in almost every scene.

So the inference is that we should not approach the film routinely from the outside in, but rather the other way around. Taken on those terms, there is much to admire, not only for the specialist but for the generalist viewer.

Let us look at it, as Everett did, through that lens.

Rupert Everett. Photo by Wilhelm Moser, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
The Other O.W.

Rupert Everett would readily acknowledge that he had to beg, steal, and borrow to make The Happy Prince a reality. As we shall see, these were not only strategies he employed to recruit actors or to raise financing—they were part of the inspiration that informed his film-making.

Anyone connected with movies will tell you that being able to write, direct, and star in a film is not a gift given to many—although it does give one the opportunity to say, as Rupert has, that, as a director, he is his own favorite actor.

But if one is going to attempt the feat, particularly for the first time, one might as well begin at the top. The leading progenitor of diving-in at the deep end of auteur theory (in the talkie-era) was another famous OW: Orson Welles.

Of course, I’m not suggesting Everett is a new Welles—not even he would aspire to that. But if one is structuring a film that begins where it ends with a flawed genius on his death-bed, you could do worse for inspiration than Welles’ magnum opus Citizen Kane (1941). One scene in particular suggests this might have been the case.

It is the scene in which the young Kane becomes a pawn to be sacrificed by his parents in a gambit of love and money. This fate was paralleled by Wilde’s own children who were similarly placed during his post-prison exile. Oscar’s two sons were kept from him, hostage in an arrangement in which Wilde dared to lose a financial allowance for the sake of the love that dared not speak its name.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Everett signals this subplot with Welles’ landmark mise en scène of the frame-within-a-frame. In both films the boys are shown in the background through a window, playing outside, oblivious to their futures being decided within.

Recognizing this conjunction leads one to realize that the narrative arc of both films follows the same shadowy sequence of imagery and flashback, told with an air of mystery. Moreover, each film resolves its mystery with a whispered line: Wilde’s resolution “it’s a dream” substituting for Kane’s foreshadowing clue “Rosebud“. And in between their bookends both of the newcomers to the director’s chair tend to overwhelm with technique—with Everett signaling the kaleidoscopic mosaic to follow by spinning the stained glass lantern during the opening story-telling of ‘The Happy Prince.’

In ways like this, Everett pays his directorial dues to what must be his favored movie motifs, which also include a suggestive train entering a tunnel; a refugee at the prow of a ship as it crests the waves; and a reunion symbolized by the emergence of a loved one through the steam and smoke of a railway platform.

We have all seen these before, and while it may be amusing to identify the allusions, I shall not dwell upon them. They are merely conceits of Everett (the director). More poignant for our purpose is the vision that Everett (the screenwriter and actor) conjures for his subject, Oscar Wilde.

“Unlimited and absolute is the vision of him who sits at ease and watches, who walks in loneliness and dreams.”

Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist (1891).

Any portrayal of an actual life is necessarily subjective—one of many possible.

There have been several notable big screen characterizations of Wilde including Robert Morley, Peter Finch, Stephen Fry, and now Rupert Everett. It is easy to compare all these versions because each of their respective films feature the same scene. This is Wilde’s curtain call on the opening night of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), when Oscar, cigarette in hand, gave an amusing speech to a first night audience. You can view the first three of these vignettes on my page here.

The measure of any interpretation of a real-life figure, however, is often determined by how well the actor negotiates the nexus of impression and  impersonation. For an exemplar of this think Frost/Nixon (2008) starring Frank Langella as Nixon (impression) and Michael Sheen as Frost (impersonation).

However, there is a difference with characters as far back as Wilde.

Unlike latter-day embodiments of kindred souls such as Truman Capote or Quentin Crisp, no one actually knows what Oscar Wilde was like from personal experience. Everett telegraphed the license that this lack of knowledge offers by saying during production, “historical characters are up for grabs, really—they are what you want them to be.”

Happily, in The Happy Prince, Everett stays firmly on the side of the impressionists. He gives us his Wilde as an artist in exile. And, as a French impression, the question whether he is your Wilde or mine does not matter—any more than it should not have mattered to retrograde Victorian art critics that Pissarro’s trees were not actually violet, or that Renoir’s torsos resembled a mass of decomposing flesh. [1]

And before leaving French impressionism perhaps we should mention the Symbolists who would not only enjoy Everett giving a public rendition  of “The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery,” but would help us interpret his subsequent bar-room reverie and collapse to the floor—for surely somewhere in that prostrate figure is the fallen statue of the happy prince, and by extension Wilde’s own fall from grace.

The drunken Wilde, although he is laughed at by the clientele, is not included for us to laugh with. Indeed, it is a brave move to give us a generally more intoxicated Oscar than we have seen. This more mature reading of his character is borne out by Ashley Robins’ diagnosis that Oscar was prey to a familial tendency towards alcoholism. [2] We should be grateful for Everett’s uncompromising approach in this respect, for all too often we venerate the excesses of our historical heroes without visualizing the human toll.

So Everett gives us Wilde the character—but no life would be complete without incident, and if this age teaches us anything, it is that facts, too, are open to interpretation.

Here again, however, Everett employs a clever device. Because the scenario is stylized as a dream rather than a docudrama, it is largely futile to quibble at any factual inconsistencies. In a dream people can be older than they were; hair can be longer that it was; and playwrights can sing music hall songs in a bar. Even the structure of events can be anachronous. So if a casual viewer offers you the précis that the film is too dark and the narrative too confusing, remind them that in depression there is no color, and in a dream there is no timeline.

This fantasy approach allows Everett the freedom to play with fanciful notions, such as the doctor doubling as a character in Wilde’s play, and a ghostly visitation by Constance, Wilde’s recently deceased wife. But none of this visionary license relieves the film of its duty of care to present
a form of veracity, nor should it.

So it is worth while noting that Everett’s impression of Wilde actually is a believable Oscar: one that is refreshingly frank and human, and satisfyingly in sympathy with a scholarly knowledge of his final years.

What Dreams May Come?

The entire treatment of the screenplay as a deathbed dreamscape is hinted at in the short story of ‘The Happy Prince’ when Wilde prompts the Shakespearean allusion: “Death is the brother of Sleep, is he not?”

This provides a fitting allegory for the film.

The fact that the movie retains the seemingly upbeat title of the story, at the risk of misleading its audience, validates the idea that the film is not just a bio-pic, but also a telling of Wilde’s fairy tale.

It is a story that provides the perfect mirror for Wilde’s final years. A parable of before-and-after, of lessons learned, and of sadness and decline. It is the reflection of a once carefree prince of pleasure now forced to adopt his career destiny. A destiny Wilde so often sought for himself in his work as a Christlike figure, and one who, like the happy prince, learns that humility, suffering and charity put one on the side of the Angels.

There is one subtlety of the story worth highlighting as it explains a common observation about the film.

It has been said that, despite her good performance, Emily Watson as Wilde’s wife Constance, does not appear enough in the film. Yet, in Wilde’s story of ‘The Happy Prince’, the female figure, in the form of a reed, is dismissed quite peremptorily. After a summer in love with the reed (Wilde’s marriage?) the swallow, who was initially attracted by the reed’s “slender waist” soon tires of her domesticity and leaves her for north Africa to join his flock. This represents the precise autobiographical moment of Wilde’s homosexual beginnings after Constance’s pregnancies, [3] and anticipates Oscar’s own ventures to Algiers where he joined Bosie to smoke hashish and court boys with profiles. So make no mistake: it was no oversight to spare the estimable Emily. This is a film about Wilde’s life alone; not with his family; and not, eventually, even with Bosie. It is just about the internal Oscar, the lonely victim of a society that had once bejeweled him, now dying like a fairy prince with a heart of lead.

Counterpoints

As I read it, the film is constructed within a network of a visual and verbal counterpoints.

It begins with Wilde reading ‘The Happy Prince’ to his own children, a scene that finds its counterpoint after Wilde’s separation from his family by his continuing to read the story to surrogate urchins of the gutter.

At first it appears as though this is done to suggest longing, but it would be false to Wilde if this idea were true.

In reality Wilde was duplicitous about his family: he wrote to Constance to tell her that “you and my sons are the only things that tie me to life”, which would be a nice sentiment if he had not also told a friend that Alfred Douglas (Colin Morgan) was “the only gate to any life” he would have. Of course, neither of these sentiments were genuine, borne only out of forgivable moods—yes moods, those flights of feeling that he often complained of Bosie having.

It is not without knowledge of all this irony that Everett cuts from the now crippled Constance alone in her chamber to Oscar out strolling the wide expanses of the beach debating Bosie with Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas).

Colin Morgan as Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Photo by Wilhelm Moser, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The question of who is to blame for Oscar’s downfall is also addressed in counterpoints. The traditional candidate is Bosie, whose aesthetically long hair (which he did not have) is probably shown that way intentionally to contrast with the more staid, short-back-and-sides of his rival Ross.

The actions of both these lovers often did Oscar no favors, and yet he needed them in different ways. So we see the counterpoint of Oscar saying the same thing to Ross and Bosie separately—that the other loved him “in a way you could never understand.” With this insightful piece of scripting Everett shows us how Oscar might have applied in his personal life, the double dealing that he resorted to professionally in his final years by selling the scenario of the same play to different people.

Overarching in the blame game, however, is the British establishment represented by Queen Victoria. The counterpoint here is that a photograph of the Queen is unpacked for Oscar by his friend Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) upon his release from prison when his new life begins—and it is still there by his bedside at the end of his life when he dies. Not merely as vigilante to his demise, one imagines, but as the accused. It was her government, her nobility, her courts, and the entire Victorian mentality that put Oscar where he now found himself in death, and not for nothing is her image the last face that Wilde sees in life.

The Church, too, does not emerge unscathed. Everett appears to condemn the contemporary clergy, perhaps for a lack of Christianity, by cross-cutting the sprinkling of holy water with the spittle of the common bigot, as if to show a shared lack of morality.

Incidentally, Tom Wilkinson may be forgiven for being unsure whether to spit or to sprinkle because in this film he is the priest who anoints Wilde on his deathbed, while in the 1997 film Wilde he is Oscar’s homophobic nemesis the Marquess of Queensberry.

I have reserved mention of Everett (the actor) until now because his best moment is also a counterpoint. Wilde’s life in his prison exile consisted of maudlin episodes punctuated by moments when he still retained his sense of humor. How better, then, for the actor to be given a scene where he is laughing and crying at the same time? This occurs when Oscar meets Bosie for the first time after prison, and is reduced to tears of love, but also to tears of laughter at the pathos of his own reaction. This must be a difficult emotion to play but Everett pulls it off convincingly. The counterpoint is emphasized by replaying over this moment the song that Wilde had sung earlier about ‘the boy I love’.

A Different Corner

Another vital layer to the film is the important element of gay identity, which Wilde was able to indulge post-prison when all masks had been removed for him, and he had removed himself to France where homosexuality has never been illegal.

The subject is brought into relief by a verbal exchange in a scene where Oscar and his friends are recognized in a café by a herd of British undergraduates. After severe goading, Oscar attempts to restrain their leader by saying “You go too far, Sir!”—which brings the shouted, yet veiled, rejoinder: “No, you go too far Madam!”

This no-win situation causes Oscar and his friends to find refuge in a church, pursued by the mob seeking a confrontation.

Photo by Wilhelm Moser, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Oscar brings the episode to a head by resorting to physical violence.

When I first saw this scene in the movie trailer it did not ring true. I was reminded of a little-known remark Wilde once gave to a journalist on his North American lecture tour where he was also subjected to similar provocation:

“I have seen an exhibition of ill-breeding and impudence that amounts to positive barbarism. I do not let it trouble me, for I cultivate indifference to all such vulgarity. The philosophy of life is never to be annoyed.” [4]

However, having viewed the scene in the context of the film, one now relishes Wilde’s reaction as entirely justified—although I am sure there is also a healthy dose of personal angst and catharsis in it for Everett himself.

Perhaps also relevant to Everett’s personal journey through the gay experience, is the point in the film when Wilde ponders the possibilities of never having met Bosie. Everett gives Wilde a line to the effect that it might have been better had he turned ‘A Different Corner’. This is precisely the metaphor used by another gay icon, George Michael, in his song of that name. The song explores this Sliding Doors concept, postulating that by going back in time the singer could “turn a different corner and we never would have met”.  It is too much of a coincidence for Everett to use this line in anything other than homage. One imagines that Michael’s untimely death on Christmas Day 2016 came during Everett’s screenwriting—and yet it is no mere tribute. The appropriateness of the song is validated by the Wildean scenario of the lyric where the protagonist, in fear of being used, sees a future of loneliness and confusion.

The rest of the homoerotic content is also cast in counterpoints. Incidents we know happened, such as Wilde paying for sex with rent boys, are set against orgies that probably only occurred in Wilde’s dreams—and these scenes, tellingly, often cross-cut the happy prince in abandon with the happy family that had abandoned him.

The dialogue, too, spans the antitheses of humor and philosophy. On the one hand we have Wilde’s intimately knowing caution to Robbie not to get too excited lest he “burst a hemorrhoid.” And then, a key line in the film, as Wilde stares wistfully into the distance. His remark that he now views his past scandals and imprisonment as “a small black dot against the edge of dawn” is too vividly poignant not to have been written by someone who has also put behind himself the hardships of acceptance.

En Fin

Just as Welles began with his best work, Everett accepts that his career as a writer/director may have culminated with it. He has said in interviews that he may not make another one like it, certainly not if it takes him ten years, and this again, informs the special nature of this film as a project not just another movie.

This review does not presume to evaluate the film simplistically.

Movie ratings have a touch of arrogance that ignores subjectivity—and for every 10-star aficionado there is another for whom it was two hours of their life they will never get back. Besides, Everett doesn’t mind if you don’t like it. He said after wrapping the film that he now has an empathy with disappointment, a fondness for films that have been a struggle to get made. Perhaps that is a parental instinct towards a child after so much labor and in spite of its faults.

Clearly, I enjoyed the film on many levels—and I think it is a success, indeed, a triumph. But my greater purpose is to guard against a rush to judgment. The distilling of ten years’ work into 90 minutes of film should not be fodder for filmgoers to dismiss with a paragraph of missing the point.

We must keep up with our visionaries. Otherwise, Rupert Everett will become another misunderstood Wilde: a dreamer who can only find his way by moonlight, with the punishment that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

© John Cooper, 2018


Reviewed at Sony Screening Room, New York City.


[1] Opinions of Louis Leroy (1812–1885) who was the French 19th-century art critic who invented the term Impressionism as a satirical criticism.

[2] Oscar Wilde—The Great Drama of His Life: How His Tragedy Reflected His Personality. Ashley Robins, Sussex Academic Press (2011).

[3] For Wilde;’s poetic expression of this moment see my article Three Times Tried.

[4]  The Hartford Courant, August 21, 1882, 2

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John Cooper

John Cooper is a researcher, author, blogger and documentary historian. As a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society in London, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America, he has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde, having lectured on Wilde, and contributing to TV, film, and academic journals including The Wildean and Oscholars. Online he is the designer, author and editor of this noncommercial archive Oscar Wilde in America, blogger, and moderator of the Oscar Wilde Internet discussion groups at Yahoo and Google. For the last 14 years he has specialized in new and unique research into Oscar Wilde in New York, where he conducts guided walking tours based on the visits of Oscar Wilde. In 2012 John rediscovered Oscar Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his recent book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

6 thoughts on “The Happy Prince—(2018)”

  1. This was the best review of the film I read, and I read a lot of them! I saw it twice in the cinema, once with fellow members of the Oscar Wilde Society, and I didn’t catch the Welles nods. I did, like you, call out the wonderful line “It’s a dream” in my article for The Chap magazine. As a metatextual line – telling the viewer, “You are not going to see the pleasant film suggested in the first scene” – it has a corollary in the Robert Morley Wilde film of 1960, where Wilde, near the end of his life, tells an accordion player outside a Parisian cafe to play something happy, at which point dramatic, tragic, non-diegetic music thunders in – and Wilde begins laughing hysterically. Both scenes reinforce the idea that Wilde was the author of his own tragedy, and as such both experienced his fall and observed it as one would a film.

    Liked by 1 person

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