The final years of Oscar Wilde‘s life weren’t joyful, but Rupert Everett — who wrote, directed, and stars in The Happy Prince (2018) — finds the artistic beauty in this tragedy. It’s an appropriate tribute to the poet and aesthete whose tragic flaw was a love of beauty.
The movie shows Wilde in all his witty, gluttonous, charming, self-destructive glory, as he takes up with Parisian street hustlers and flashes back to his ruinous affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas that lead to his imprisonment and which he resumed afterwards to yet more heartbreak. There’s not a lot of story, really, but it’s only three years from when Wilde was released from prison until his death at 46. Hard labor broke his body, if not his spirit. In the film, he wanders Italy with Bosie, enjoying a brief return to decadence, narrated by Everett’s elegiac voiceovers of Wilde’s own words.
Everett said in the Tatler of the relationship:
“Oscar thought he loved Bosie – Lord Alfred Douglas – with whom he had an ill-fated, tempestuous affair. Actually, it wasn’t love, it was self-destructive desire, something we have all felt at one time or other: the urge to throw ourselves off a cliff, a kind of panic that makes you want to fuck it all up. Most people can stop themselves, whereas Wilde surrendered to that emotion, and it sealed his fate.”
While the film is gorgeously atmospheric and lovingly shot in Bavaria and Naples, there’s not a lot to talk about in terms of costumes. Just degrees of 1890s menswear, all impeccably done by Maurizio Millenotti (Hamlet, The Importance of Being Earnest) and Giovanni Casalnuovo. Rupert Everett wears a fat suit and makeup to recreate the haggard post-prison appearance of Wilde according to the Radio Times.
In the Daily Actor, Everett further described his process:
“For me, it was important to try and find the look of the character, really, before anything else. I felt that once I got that, everything else came with it.
It was very much, for me, to do with finding the silhouette of the character, the kind of elephantine largeness of him. The way he walked and also the shape of his face. I had these fillers inside my mouth to make my face a bit rounder. And this thin, lanky hair, so I shaved my head and had thin wigs that you could see through. That was really it, for the makeup side of it. I wore a corset over my fat suit to pull myself up, and then, I was more or less there.
I always knew I wanted him to have a Charlie Chaplin-esque kind of quality to him, like a rundown local weirdo side to him. I made all the costumes very broken down, with cigarette stubs out on them and things like that. So, it could be a good contrast to him as a star. In one sense, I think it’s like the opposite to ‘A Star is Born,’ it’s ‘A Star is Dead.’ That’s what got me into the character, really.”
This also creates a striking contrast to Colin Morgan’s preternatural beauty as Bosie, and drives home the point of Oscar Wilde’s ill-fated obsessions.
At the very start of the movie, there’s a flashback to before Wilde’s imprisonment, to a performance of one of his plays in London. It shows how hard he’s fallen in a mere handful of years.
In the sequence immediately after Wilde’s release from jail, old friend Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and former lover Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) try to rehabilitate Oscar and discourage a reunion with Bosie. Oh well.
There’s also the question of communication with Wilde’s estranged wife Constance (Emily Watson), who continued to send him money as long as he promised not to see Bosie. Oscar also wanted to see his two sons, which she denied.
But off goes Oscar to Italy with Bosie, which is a beautiful, sad, sexy, doomed party of Wilde’s own making. Everett told Collider why he admired Oscar Wilde in spite of how he ended up:
“He carved a new constitution for himself, away from the old one, where the stars were rent boys, petty thieves and street urchins. He made a whole new world for himself, where he wasn’t a victim. I find that amazing about him. He retained his sense of humor. He was still curious about people. One of the god-like things about him is his potential for empathy. He was endlessly being cited for extraordinary empathy with people, apart from being an incredible snob, as well. He’s got so many contrasting things to him, which I find very, very attractive.”
How do you feel about The Happy Prince? Happy? Sad?
I stopped watching it after about 10 minutes. Upto now,I’d had some sympathy for Wilde, but it ended with seeing what he was doing in Paris.
I appreciated the effort Rupert took in his portrayal, but it was very poignant. Oscar Wilde in a way gave of himself so much to his playgoing audience similarly like the ‘Happy Prince’ did in the Oscar Wilde story.
If people had only accepted him for what he was, he might have come to see Bosie as he really was.
I also found it troubling bc of his life in Paris.
Wilde was a self-destructive person. The kind that pushes and pushes until something gives. Great film, though, a labour of love.
I agree. It’s easy to bash or adore Wilde, but Everett’s script obviously loves Wilde and still tries to see him clearly. Re. Constance Wilde: Her attitude may seem severe to 21st-century Western minds, but the poor woman put up with a lot from Oscar. After the trial, she had to change her surname to secure some privacy for herself and their two children.
Something I find kind of astonishing is that Wilde’s only grandchild, Merlin Holland, is still among us, a talented keeper of Oscar’s flame: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/nov/24/classics.oscarwilde
Well said. For all the popular talk of nuance, it’s incredibly easy to fall into casting people as heroes or villains only–was Wilde an incredible wit and oppressed for his sexuality, or someone destructive to himself and others? The answer seems to be that he was both, among a great many other things. Thanks for sharing the article about his grandson–quite interesting, as is the review at the end.
I feel for Constance. She can’t have had an easy time dealing with Wilde’s sexuality and other foibles but to be humiliated before the entire world when the mess went public took it to a whole other level. She seems to have never completely lost affection, or at least sympathy with Oscar but I can see why she felt she had to distance herself and the children from him.
She meant something to Wilde too it seems. I read that he visited her grave and was deeply hurt that she was buried under her pseudonym with no mention of their marriage.
Interesting. Sounds like it was done with much care, and I’m glad it includes his wife (because sympathy for him shouldn’t overshadow her struggle or story either). Does it go right up to his death? I’m curious because I’ve heard stories of a deathbed conversion that would be another complicated piece to a complicated puzzle.
The film goes up to Wilde’s death but doesn’t show his deathbed conversion, & I couldn’t find any interview with Everett about why / why not. Wonder if it was filmed & cut for time?
Thanks. I also wonder if it was filmed; if they didn’t include any other religious aspects (apparently he wrote to a friary to see if he could stay there after prison?; they said no), then I would assume they didn’t include it. I can see why; it can be hard to represent religious belief authentically (honestly without making something wishy-washy, anti-religion, or all-about-religion), particularly when the person involved probably had very complex feelings and thoughts leading to that decision. And without exploring that, it could look very tacked on and maybe a bit tragic.
Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.
Bosie’s flowing locks drove me to distraction, and not in a nice way. There are surprisingly few photos of him as a young man but they all show him with short hair. I don’t think Jude Law’s performance as Bosie in ‘Wilde’ will be bettered.
I find it hard to imagine anyone other than Stephen Fry playing Wilde, and I loved Jude Law too. Will be interesting to compare!
I watched it for Colin Morgan (although Colin Firth was nice to see), and I was conflicted. It was a beautifully shot film about a taboo topic of its time, but it was missing something.
A snippet of useless information: Tom Wilkinson, who played the Catholic priest who administered the last rites to Oscar, also played the Marquess of Queensbury in ‘Wilde’!
Totally OT, but a few years ago I discovered that a great-great aunt of mine was married to a nephew of Sir Alexander Dixie, the husband of Bosie’s aunt Lady Florence Douglas.
Ok, firstly, I never heard of this film. Thanks to this post, I’m adding it to my must watch list. Oscar Wilde is so fascinating to me. Secondly, I cannot get over how Colin Morgan looks in these screen caps. I’m not generally drawn to him, but i those photos…oh my! (Fans self…) Thirdly, we must acknowledge that the actor sitting next to Duckface (I mean, Anna Chancellor as Lydia Arthbutnott) is Julian Wadham, who will always hold a tender spot in my heart for his role as Madox in The English Patient.
Getting back to the film at hand, it looks very atmospheric. Also, the talented people involved are a draw, too. I find Rupert Everett’s performances to be pretty hit or miss. If you hadn’t highlighted the other actors involved, this film would probably be a “maybe” watch rather than a must watch. I mean, can anyone come close to Stephen Fry’s performance in Wilde?
I thought nothing could touch Fry’s Wilde (tho Peter Egan in Lillie captures a certain side of young Wilde beautifully). But Everett digs deep into the old ruined Wilde here, which isn’t often seen. Now I’d like to watch both films back to back, it might give a fuller life story on film.
Peter Egan was the best Wilde. He truly looked like him.
Julian Wadham was also so elegant and handsome in “The Madness of King George.” I nurtured a crush on him for sometime.
It was sad for me…as I love him and want him to be the character he was in the series about Lily Langham…which was wonderful. Also I read a bio on Constance and understand her pain…it is a shame he lived in such an inflexible era where being himself was against the law.
As far as I can tell Bosie was a horrible human being and total waste of oxygen. But you can get away with a lot of you’re pretty.