The Happy Prince review: Rupert Everett delivers moving and surprising biopic of Oscar Wilde

Geoffrey Macnab

Rupert Everett, 105 mins, starring: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas, Tom Wilkinson

Oscar Wilde goes to ruin in Rupert Everett’s debut feature as director. Everett also wrote and stars in the film, giving a grandstanding performance as the Irish writer at the end of his life, after his release from prison, where he has been doing hard labour for “gross indecency.” This is a moving and surprising biopic that squeezes out every last drop of pathos from its subject matter.

Everett doesn’t skimp on the squalor or bodily fluids. As the playwright decays, we see blood seeping out of his perforated ear drum. Late on, close to death, he is violently sick. In the film’s saddest and grimmest scene, to which 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, passers-by gather round him, taunt him and finally begin to spit on him.

Nor does Everett tone down Wilde’s bad behaviour. Wilde treats his wife Constance (Emily Watson) abominably. He is louche and self-indulgent, trying to dull the pain he is feeling in a fog of absinthe and cocaine. If old acquaintances approach him, he will always tap them for money.

He remains predatory in his amorous life, buying snow drops from a Parisian street boy he then grooms as a lover. He is always ready to indulge the excesses of one boyfriend, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan), and to take advantage of the kindness of another, the long-suffering Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas.)

He can be vain and self-pitying. Even so, as portrayed by Everett, he is the film’s one truly admirable character. Like the statue of the “happy prince” who gives up all his jewels to the swallow to help the poor in his celebrated children’s story, Wilde loses everything.

The film suggests Wilde half welcomed his shame and exile. It enabled him to escape England, “the natural habitat of the hypocrite.” He is happier as part of the demimonde in Paris, among the drunkards, postmen, pick-pockets and prostitutes, than in high society London. The Parisan low-lifes don’t judge him. When he has a little money, he does his best to spend it as quickly as he can in a bar presided over by a manager (Beatrice Dalle) who dotes on him.

Everett’s portrayal of Paris in the late 1890s evokes memories of Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrayal of the city’s decadent nightlife. In one of the film’s more absurd moments, we see Wilde in a brothel, looking as happy as a pig in clover as he hears the sounds of the creaking beds and orgasmic cries in the adjoining rooms.

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.” (Wisely, Everett tends to leave out most of the writer’s best known epigrams.)

Everett plays Wilde as if the writer is a matinee idol gone to seed. The middle-aged bohemian retains traces of his old good looks but he has become jowly and overweight. He still has the ability to command a room. He is both more imposing physically and far wittier than anyone else in his circle. What Everett also conveys is Wilde’s yearning and sense of regret: his grief at his separation from his two sons and his child-like quality.

The narrative here is episodic and impressionistic. Everett strings together incidents from different periods in Wilde’s life, both post and pre-prison, We see him tottering along the street, an anonymous man in the crowd. 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.

As the film makes clear, Wilde wasn’t abandoned by all his old friends following his imprisonment. The doggedly loyal Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie raised a substantial amount of money for him and arranged a false identity so that he could travel without being harassed by the authorities.

Publishers still wanted his work. His celebrity hadn’t waned. Nor, though, had his appetite for “vice and pleasure” or his self-destructive streak. The most poignant scene in the film is when he rips up a letter from “Bosie,” who got him into such trouble in the first place, vowing he wants nothing further to do with him. Moments later, we see him desperately trying to piece the letter together.

“I was doomed from the start,” Wilde exclaims in one of his many moments of self-pity. Whether or not that was the case, he hurries along his own demise, frittering away his money and making a series of disastrous decisions.

One of the most admirable aspects of The Happy Prince is Everett’s refusal to provide a sanitised version of his subject. His Wilde is a subversive and contradictory figure who frequently behaves in a monstrous fashion. He is also perceptive, sensitive and a master storyteller. Everett makes him seem like a character in one of his own fairy tales, ultimately achieving grace and redemption through his own suffering.

The Happy Prince hits UK cinemas 15 June.