This is near perfection. Of course, Rupert Everett is Oscar Wilde. Naturally, it should take half a decade for the funds to be accumulated. Absolutely, The Happy Prince is its title. What a wonderful film is this.
The credits that roll at the close of The Happy Prince – which is Everett’s passion project and directorial debut – are deeply telling. Not only is the film bolstered by more than twenty production companies, distributors and corroborators but it has a dozen executive producers. Oscar Wilde may have gifted the world an abundance of enduring culture but the difficult final years of his life remain stubbornly resistant to financing. No wonder that previous biopics have avoided the topic.
Everett’s struggle was, however, worth the effort. After Stephen Fry, who took to the role terrifically in 1997, it is hard to think of an actor more perfectly primed to play the Irish poet and playwright than he. Indeed, the film marks a reprisal for the actor, who last played Wilde on stage in Neil Armfield’s 2012 stage revival of The Judas Kiss.
This new outing treads a familiar path to that play, honing in on Wilde’s destructive relationship with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan). Emily Watson is frustratingly peripheral as the writer’s disconsolate wife Constance, whilst Edwin Thomas makes for a tremendously emphatic Robbie Ross, the lover who should have been.
All revolve around Wilde’s true protégé, which is to say himself. Layered in jowly plush and rouged prosthetics, Everett explores many varieties of the writer’s bumptious façade throughout the film’s length, most predominantly flirting between a triptych of Wilde’s celebrity heyday, imprisonment and later degradation. He is a languid and elegiac figure, demanding sympathy – a closing title reminds that Wilde only received a ‘pardon’ for his homosexuality last year – and exasperation by equal measure.
Timelines are kaleidoscopically spliced across the film, which is tied loosely by Wildes of various ages telling his story of The Happy Prince: ‘there is no mystery so great as misery’. In his pre-gaol days, Wilde is gleeful, witty and vivacious; prison finds him bald and beaten; whilst exiled, he is a pantomime dame and Mr Micawber alike.
As is exposed here, the eminently camp Wilde was welcome amid the echelons of society so long as he conformed. Petulantly unable to do so, Wilde is a multifaceted figure. Certainly, among the finest scenes in the film is the one in which Everett belts out that hardy Music Hall ballad The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery in such a way as to render it both jolly and heartbreaking in a single beat. His is a powerhouse performance.
Yet, far be this from a one man show. As much as Everett holds an omnipotent grasp on his startlingly assured debut, equally deserving of acclaim is the chromatically luminescent work of cinematographer John Conroy. A glow of pastel colouring lends poeticism to Wilde’s grim reality. Everett infuses his script with flourishes from the Wildean literary legacy; a romantic defiance of bouts of homophobia in the film that, in one instance, evokes Lean’s Brief Encounter.
Everett’s compassion for Wilde is touching and embellished by wish fulfilment. One magical scene sees Wilde break the fourth wall in order to declare ‘It’s a dream!’ On waking, it was the performances that lingered with me.