The Happy Prince

Film, written and directed by Rupert Everett.

‘The Happy Prince’ takes its title from Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same name, about the statue of a selfish prince who solicits the aid of a bird, a swallow, to first understand and then help the poor. He redeems himself through his pity for them and then by giving away his sapphire eyes and the ruby from his hilt. In the movie, this tale is woven artfully through the weft of Wilde’s life: back and forth from the filmic present to the past; as a children’s bedtime treat and as payment to a young boy who is starved as much of fantasy as of sustenance.

Rupert Everett, who directed and wrote this tour de force, also plays Wilde, speaking French and English (with a smattering of Italian). He is jowly and, by turns, jocund and morose. With jaw jutting forward in grim stoicism, he negotiates what is left of his life after being imprisoned for sodomy. Promising and repeatedly failing to resist the much younger Bosie (acted by Colin Morgan) whom he loves unreciprocally, the cocaine, absinthe, champagne and compulsion to take centre stage are secondary aspects of his addictive personality and contributory factors to his grizzly dénouement.

Wilde limply attempts to be reunited with his wife, Constance (a balanced performance by Emily Watson), and grieves his lost sons – after he was incarcerated he never saw the pair again. Replacing them with a little match boy and his inamorato brother from the gutters of Paris, he is, in turn, cared for by his coterie of homosexual friends. Reggie and Robbie, played by, resectfully, Colin Firth and Edwin Thomas (who played John Colville in Churchill) bail Wilde out endlessly, and nurse him ‘to the last’ in a series of touching scenes which avoid the archetypally camp, despite a ‘darling’ here and there.

For once it is appropriate to have such a male-heavy cast, though the female roles are strong: there is an Italian mama (Franca Abategiovanni) who, in an ironic, teasing scene, believes there are ‘loose women’ in the house (despite the number of naked men reclining in her parlour!) and hysterically chastises her son and guests, frantically searches and then delivers an obsequious apology when she discovers she was wrong.

Sumptuous scenes in Naples and belle époque Paris are all about the brocade and ‘black tie’ of the time, but they are interspersed with the sordid. There is no sparing the gory details, gruesome blood and vomit, but although there are references to public toilets and a rambunctious game of strip Musical Chairs, there is little or no sex.

the happy prince 3
The album cover of the Bing Crosby / Orson Welles version of ‘The Happy Prince’.

The film lays out the facts before us without judgment: the suffering of the poor, the horror of their depredation, and the abuse of minors. Somehow the audience know it is there, understand why at some level, and can still enjoy the humour and developing relationships. After all, many of us are guilty of turning a blind eye to our own bad habits, or not saving where saving is in our power. Other themes examined in this movie are of the rich and powerful versus the poor and artistic, and of course the persecution of gay men in the 19th century.

Then there’s the religion: Christ as Wilde’s only prison companion; a crippled priest saying his prayers in a simple cliff-top chapel; the last rites with a very funny, Irish-accented Tom Wilkinson. This is the last ditch attempt, of course, to attain redemption, but we nevertheless fear that he will be forever asking forgiveness, even at the pearly gates, in contrast to the Prince of the story whose leaden heart is taken up to heaven.

The powerful scenes which remain with me are many: Vesuvius errupting (not in the sexual, but in the doomsday sense), while Constance’s apparition haunts him; Everett tottering on a nightclub table giving a hearty rendering, to delighted revellers, of ‘The Boy in the Gallery’; the degradation at Clapham Junction, the spit; the unexpected tears when he sees Bosie for the first time after his release, on another station platform. Indeed Wilde mourns that they have been reduced to living on the edges of society, in the in-between places. The awful reality of unrequited love is raw throughout.

As the narrative draws to its elevated conclusion, as his soul is being raised on high, and in contrast to ‘the boys’ left behind fighting at the graveside, the watcher is invited to wonder if the angel (God?) of the original story sees the love in our hearts, even if outwardly we are damned.