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‘Happy Prince’ studies an unhappy Oscar Wilde

Fans of Oscar Wilde might have mixed feelings about "The Happy Prince," the biopic about the 19th-century Irish-born writer. I certainly did, an opinion I explained in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Irony means, in its simplest definition, saying one thing when you mean exactly the opposite. As in, watching someone stumble and fall and then saying, “Well, that was graceful.”

Irony is behind the title of Rupert Everett’s film “The Happy Prince,” which takes its name from one of Oscar Wilde’s written works – his 1888 collection “The Happy Prince and Other Tales.” At the same time, it is the title that Everett – who not only wrote and directed but also stars in the film – applies to Wilde himself.

I almost said “the unfortunate Wilde.” But truth be told, much of Wilde’s life was anything but unfortunate. Yes, he did die in 1900, at the relatively tender age of 46, in a Paris apartment boasting bad wallpaper, alone except for a few friends left from when he was the toast of London’s literary world. But then there was that period of fame, which was immense and must have seemed enduring.

The Irish-born Wilde had earned his reputation as the witty author of such biting social satires as “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” Both of these plays, and other of Wilde’s writings, managed a delicate balance: They held a mirror up to London society, forcing the British upper classes to both see the ridiculousness of their social customs yet laugh at them at the same time.

Wilde, though, for reasons that Everett’s movie never makes clear, wasn’t good at maintaining any sense of balance, especially not in his private life. Though married, with two sons, Wilde was gay during a time in Great Britain when such a sexual orientation was considered not just shameful but was in fact illegal. And it was Wilde’s affair with a young man – along with his penchant for not just pushing but smashing social graces – that led to his downfall.

Condemned in court for “gross indecency,” Wilde spent two years in jail at hard labor. He also lost his family, most of his fortune, and he ended up fleeing to the continent – first Italy and then France – to find some sense of peace and, ultimately, to keep his date in Paris with that apartment lined with such unfortunate wallpaper.

Everett captures much of this, if necessarily in cinematic shorthand. This is, after all, a 105-minute movie and not a miniseries. And the production is well made, the costumes and sets authentic, the acting everything you would expect from its good British cast, which includes not only Everett but Colin Firth, Emily Watson and Colin Morgan as Wilde’s young lover, Alfred Bosie Douglas.

And Everett’s makeup is astounding, transforming his normal handsome features into the broad swaths of an older Wilde, aged before his time due to too much absinthe and, frankly, too much self-loathing.

Yet it’s exactly Wilde’s penchant for self-destruction that Everett doesn’t pursue enough. At some point, Everett – whose portrayal as Wilde is remarkable – has Wilde ask himself something like, “Why do I ride toward ruin? Whatever is the fascination?” A skilled actor, Everett, as a filmmaker, might have spent more time answering that particular question.