The Happy Prince movie review: 'Rupert Everett's biopic builds a bleak portrait of a weary, defeated man'
We Irish tend to sentimentalise Oscar Wilde, perhaps cunningly, as we've built an entire tourist industry around him. That ghastly statuette which reclines on a rock in Merrion Square depicts a languid, playful master storyteller who became a latter-day Saint Sebastian after falling foul of Victorian mores.
He was a man more sinned against than sinning, we like to think, and the gay world has long since embraced him as their sad-eyed patron saint. But in Rupert Everett's The Happy Prince, we witness the appalling squalor of Wilde's last days in Paris, where he lived in penury under an assumed name and assuaged his loneliness by hiring teenage rent boys.
This is no hatchet job: Everett has long been obsessed with Wilde, whom he memorably portrayed on the London stage in 2012 in David Hare's Judas Kiss. He's a big fan, and a fully paid-up member of the Wilde for sainthood movement. "For me," Everett has said, "he's a patron saint figure, or even a Christ figure, because in one sense he was crucified and then came back to life and, for the gay movement, he was the beginning."
If one accepts that thesis, The Happy Prince depicts Wilde on Golgotha, a wandering outcast being slowly strangled by rejection and shame. When we first meet him, Wilde has emerged from his two-year ordeal in Reading Gaol a changed and diminished man. Endless hours on the treadmill have shattered his health, and he seems shaken and sheepish as he checks into a Norman seaside hotel under the assumed name of Sebastian Melmoth.
The wisdom of that precaution is borne out when Wilde and his close friends Robbie Ross (Edwin Turner) and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) encounter a group of English public school louts on the seafront. They recognise Wilde and pursue him taunting and threatening until Wilde fights back.
Ross and Turner are true and loyal friends, who've stuck with Wilde at great personal cost to their own reputations: but the writer cannot escape his obsession with 'Bosie', Lord Alfred Douglas (Colin Morgan), the spoilt and capricious aristocrat whose big mouth landed him in all this trouble in the first place.
Turner and Ross are devastated when Douglas turns up in Rouen, and he and a delighted Wilde are reunited. They travel together to the Amalfi Coast, but that Mediterranean idyll will end in predictable disaster, leaving Wilde to return to Paris to mount a last stand at a fleapit hotel in Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
In fairness to Everett, he pulls no punches in his depiction of Wilde's pathetic end, living on air and absinthe and telling stories he wrote for his children to street kids who turn tricks to survive. But we get no sense whatever of the magnificent creature Wilde once was, the society butterfly who conquered 1880s London society with wit and talent alone, and wrote a string of stories and plays brilliant enough to survive the direst of scandals.
The flashbacks to his famously immodest curtain call speeches are clumsy, as is the scene on a London railway platform when the shackled and Reading-bound Wilde is surrounded and abused by a rather unconvincing proletarian mob. Given the inherent drama in the story of a great artist's grubby demise, The Happy Prince is surprisingly uncinematic, and even the light and colour of southern Italy are not capitalised on by Everett's direction.
His bandstanding performance leaves little oxygen for anyone else: Morgan is forgettably catty as Douglas, who is now so loathed he can probably never be portrayed as anything other than a capricious pantomime villain.
Everett's film, like its subject, may be suffused with imperfection, but has moments that are intensely moving. The dying writer attains a certain grandeur, especially when he makes jokes on his deathbed and calls for more champagne. But that grubby connection with underclass rent boys diluted my sympathy for Wilde, who began to seem like the author of his own misfortunes.
The Happy Prince (15A, 105mins) - 3 stars
Also releasing this week: Movie reviews: Kissing Candice, In the Fade
Films coming soon...
Leave No Trace (Ben Foster, Thomasin Mackenzie); Tag (Ed Helms, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm); Patrick (Jennifer Saunders, Beattie Edmondson); Adrift (Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin); Sicario 2 (Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Catherine Keener).