The Happy Prince

(Some of us went to this, but at different times.)

I’ve always thought that Rupert Everrett is vacuous but this film has made me change my mind.

Rupert Everett – who writes, directs and stars in this magnificent drama – was born to play Oscar Wilde, and this, Everett’s “11th-hour masterpiece” (The Times) focuses on Wilde’s final years following his notorious trial and imprisonment for “gross indecency”.

Once one of the most famous men in England, the great man of letters is now living in a kind of exile around Europe (from Normandy to Naples to Paris) after being released following his convinction for his indiscreet affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Lying on his death bed, his eventful life comes flooding back via expertly interspersed flashbacks featuring his glory days and the beginning of his downfall. Now, he must draw upon the last of his reserves to face the end of his life – and the wreckage of his public self – with immense courage…

Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde’s grandson:  “He’s a better Christ figure than Christ, if you see what I mean,” he says. “He has the godly side, the extraordinary vein of genius, and then he has his human side. His human qualities are ones we all suffer from — the snobbery, greed, ego — and for him he was completely undone by them. Most of us get away with it.”

“In the Cadogan Hotel [where Wilde was arrested after losing a libel case to the Marquess of Queensberry, his lover’s father, who had left him a note calling him a “somdomitel, when he has the chance, he could have avoided his fate, and for some reason he chose not to. It’s his 40 days in the wilderness — when Christ was tempted by the devil.” Everett may have rejected his Catholicism in which he was raised, but he still knows his scripture. “Wilde decides then that survival would only come through Crucifixion.”

Except we don’t know about Wilde’s resurrection, I say. “But we do know!” Everett says. “He was very much resurrected afterwards. He was resurrected as a writer and resurrected as the founder of a movement. Because the liberation of gays very much dates from the Oscar Wilde scandal. He saw Uranism, or whatever he called it, as a struggle against society. He wouldn’t have seen it as a problem with the Catholic church. But he did say that the road [to equality] was going to be “smeared with the blood of martyrs”. I think it was an identity for him… separate from a married man having a bit of fun.”

So was Wilde’s marriage to Constance a sham? “No, I think he was in love with her, right up until their son Cyril was born, and turned right off her after that…. One of the things about Oscar was that he wasn’t always very nice.”

Actually, says Everett, Oscar rather liked that he had married money — and in those days you took possession of your wife’s property. He also very much liked the fact that Lord Alfred Douglas was the son of a marquess. This wasn’t, says Everett, the great love of his life; rather, “an act of snobbery”.

Wilde’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism — he was received into the church by a Passionist priest that his friend Robbie Ross found in Paris — is, in a way, pivotal to this drama. Wilde, he points out, believed “the pope cured him” of a persistent, perhaps syphilitic, rash during a papal audience. Everett himself loves Pope Francis although he detests the Church” — but admits he’ll always be Catholic. That’s what an education with the monks at Ampleforth does for you.

The priest was right to wear a biretta while hearing his confession but wrong to wear a chasuble for the funeral – unless it had been immediately preceded by a requiem mass..

This is a new treatment of Wilde – no Stephen Fry-style floppy-haired hagiography with Oscar dropping lilies and epigrams as he mooches towards death. Here, ravaged and dissolute, Wilde tumbles headlong into his downfall, dying destitute in St Germain De Pres at the age of 46 having ripped his life apart heedlessly, determinedly, and poignantly in a series of rash decisions. The Happy Prince sees Wilde alone and drunk in Paris, cadging money from former friends, almost willing himself to death. His soul is irreparably damaged after two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol for gross indecency and he wants to see his children, yet reunites with Bosie knowing what that will mean. “I am my own Judas,” he says.

Out of prison, Wilde had horrified his friends by resuming the destructive relationship with the exquisite, duplicitous Bosie (Colin Morgan), which causes the termination of the tiny allowance from his humiliated ex-wife Constance (Emily Watson) and endangers Bosie’s own income, leaving them nothing to live on. It’s the beginning of the end. Oscar treats his loyal allies Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) with ungrateful negligence, but Everett imagines him, in extremis, befriending a young Paris rent boy and his tough kid brother and whimsically holding them spellbound with his fairytale The Happy Prince. In happier times, he would recite to his equally entranced sons this story of a statue who allows a swallow to denude him of all his gold to feed the poor. In Everett’s hands, the tale becomes an ambiguous parable for Wilde’s passion and (possible) redemption, the unhappy prince who makes a lonely discovery that love is the only thing worth worshipping.

Everett likes to give us the famous lines from The Ballad of Reading Gaol in voiceover: “Each man kills the thing he loves …” But Everett takes us through the moment-by-moment horror of humiliation and poverty, which Wilde brazens out with gallows humour and wit as best he can. He vomits in agony on his deathbed before declaiming: “Encore du champagne!” Everett has clearly been influenced by David Hare’s 1998 stage play The Judas Kiss, in which Everett played Wilde, and also perhaps by Peter Ackroyd’s 1983 novel The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde.

Oscar bursts into tears on being reunited with Bosie – and when he is recognised in France by a bunch of British rowdies who are hateful and homophobic (although that second concept is not something that anyone present would have recognised, perhaps not even Wilde himself). The hooligans chase Oscar, Robbie and Reggie into a church where Oscar faces them down by yelling: “The natural habitat of the hypocrite is England! Go there and leave me in peace!” Hypocrisy is the key. Polite society was prepared to turn a blind eye to homosexual assignations if they were conducted within a proper carapace of secrecy and shame. There was no immediate objection to casual sex with the lower orders, who could be bought and bought off. A flaunted connection with the Queensberry family was a class transgression. Shrewdly, Everett shows Wilde with a portrait of Queen Victoria by his deathbed. He died one year before her, and the film hints that Wilde’s vindictive treatment was part of the ugly sense of shame and mortification at Romantic and aesthetic indulgence which the manly slaughter of the first world war was supposed to redeem.

Using vignettes and flashback, we learn about his few loyal friends, his relationship with his wife and sons, which was devoted if impossible, and how he allowed Bosie to continue to destroy him. This occasionally slips into cheap sentiment, but there are some stand-out scenes — Wilde singing ‘The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery’, for instance — and, of course, there are some terrific lines. ‘I am dying beyond my means,’ he will complain on his deathbed. As for Everett, he is terrific. His Wilde is not hagiographic. His Wilde is brilliant but also foolhardy, exploited but also wilfully self-destructive, funny but also pathetic. A sad film, but ravishingly so.

Wilde’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism, no big deal now but something pretty jazzy at the time, is carefully dramatised. Everett has clearly done his homework — sometimes to a fault, as his Wilde spends so long dying you can imagine the real Wilde sitting next to you urging him to hurry up so he can pop along for an absinthe.

Oscar, as a kind of decaying monument, drifts in and out of raucous Parisian nightclubs, extravagant dinners for which he foots the bill on dwindling funds, quiet French seaside retreats or exuberant all-male frolics to keep Bosie entertained in Naples, despite the thrill of lust having soured for him. “I am my own Judas,” he moans at one point, but there’s little poignancy in his self-destructive behaviour, even as the great man’s dignity, and ultimately his life, slip away from him.

Everett returns several times in flashback, the dandy is shown in his convict’s garb on the platform at Clapham Junction.

As he waits to be transferred to Reading Gaol, passersby gather round him, taunt him and finally begin to spit on him

He talks about being “shrouded in the symphony of adjacent copulation.” Late on, when he is sitting outside a cafe as the rain lashes down on him and can’t afford to go inside to settle his bill, he seems remarkably sanguine. At moments like these, he lives up to one of his most famous lines: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

He is suddenly recognised by an old “friend”, Mrs Arbuthnot (Anna Chancellor), who knew him in his glory days and pursues him.

“Surely you remember me?” she implores him. His response is to sponge £5 off her. Her husband catches them up and warns Wilde, whom he once admired, that if he ever speaks to her again, he will kill him.

“Dear Prince, I must leave you, but I will never forget you, and next spring I will bring you back two beautiful jewels in place of those you have given away. The ruby shall be redder than a red rose, and the sapphire shall be as blue as the great sea.”

 

“Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in the marketplace. It may not be purchased of the merchants, for can it be weighed out in the balance for gold.”

 

“There is no good talking to him,” said a Dragon-fly, who was sitting on the top of a large brown bulrush; “no good at all, for he has gone away.”
“Well, that is his loss, not mine,” answered the Rocket. “I am not going to stop talking to him merely because he pays no attention. I like hearing myself talk. It is one of my greatest pleasures. I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”
“Then you should definitely lecture on Philosophy,” said the Dragon-fly.”

 

“Everyone quoted it, it was full of so many words that they could not understand.”

 

“In the square below,’ said the Happy Prince, ‘there stands a little match-girl. She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled. Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying. She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare. Pluck out my other eye, and give it to her, and her father will not beat her.’

‘I will stay with you one night longer,’ said the Swallow, ‘but I cannot pluck out your eye. You would be quite blind then.’

‘Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,’ said the Prince, ‘do as I command you.’

So he plucked out the Prince’s other eye, and darted down with it. He swooped past the match-girl, and slipped the jewel into the palm of her hand. ‘What a lovely bit of glass,’ cried the little girl; and she ran home, laughing.

Then the Swallow came back to the Prince. ‘You are blind now,’ he said, ‘so I will stay with you always.”

 

“The living always think that gold can make them happy”

 

“There is no Mystery so great as Misery.”

 

“Who are you?” he said.

“I am the Happy Prince.”

“Why are you weeping then?” asked the swallow; “you have quite drenched me.”

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