Rupert Everett’s relationship with Oscar Wilde is well-documented. He starred as Wilde in the 2012 return of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss, and displayed an affinity with his wafting witticisms in his own, rather Wilde-ly written memoir, Vanished Years. He’s also spent a decade buried deep in The Happy Prince: a project that emanates nothing if not passion, and laments the literary treasure’s exile with hot, visceral anger.
Everett’s intensely personal tribute takes its name from Wilde’s ballad of poverty and devotion, which Everett applies like thematic sugar paper to the artist’s last years in exile in Naples and Paris. The film is laced with fragile excerpts, but hang airily over a more grotesque, dilapidated Wilde than has previously been seen. Though seemingly inspired by Ken Hughes’ The Trials of Oscar Wilde, Everett’s performance is also lovingly classical. This is a Victorian-era Pierrot, as much a figure of comic honesty as tragic loss. Earlier scenes depict an absinthe-bleary Wilde slurring music hall ballads to an affectionate Parisian crowd, later playfully appreciating the rear of a nearby waiter while lunching in Naples.
But through this clownish innocence comes a stark criticism of the conditions Wilde endured. Flashbacks interject the riotous comedy with the standing ovations that once greeted his beloved plays, realising the disparaging caricature to which the writer has been reduced. Still more heart-breaking: its performance appears his only reprieve.
The fear underpinning Stephen Fry’s starched-collar portrayal in 1997’s Wilde was loss of name; the loss of livelihood that knowingly results from having one’s nature condemned. For Everett, name is a terrible ghost that haunts the man’s consciousness through airy memories and accusatory nightmares, detailing a loss more directly spiritual than Brian Gilbert’s sumptuous biopic. One of the hardest scenes depicts Clapham Junction, in which a profane mob is boxed uncomfortably into closeup as it (an amorphous, beastly ‘it’) repeatedly spits upon a glassy-eyed Wilde, whom Everett affords the harrowing expression of a man whose soul has long departed.
It is a loss that renders his strained romances especially affecting, as it prolongs a constant mourning for a closeness that has been irrevocably denied. The pathos peaks through the author’s reunion with terrible darling, Bosie Douglas (a marvellously puerile Colin Morgan), in which Wilde cracks into chuckling half-sobs under a matter-of-fact “So, how are you?”
Admirable too is Edwin Thomas as a believably side-lined Robbie Ross, whose inclusion is a testament to the film’s respect for Wilde and his life. Carried equally by Emily Watson’s stoic Constance, what comes across is not a clean-cut appraisal of a literary icon, but a grounded acknowledgement of his spectacular fall, and the mark his defamation left on those who held him dear.
Everett’s outrage is palpable throughout The Happy Prince, and today it’s an outrage easily empathised with. As the closing credits disclose, Wilde was officially pardoned by the British authorities last year, which following such a dark illustration of Wilde’s twilight years – feels an embarrassment in itself. For all the scorn, humiliation and self-hatred Wilde (as a human being, empathy need not be reserved for literary greats) endured toward the end of his life, forgiveness is not what the authorities should be issuing.