Finally, “The Happy Prince” has come to Michigan.
First, I must congratulate Rupert Everett for taking this project on in the first place. Oscar Wilde has inspired an entire industry of books, journals, scholarly works, and films. That means there are a lot of people out there who are experts on the subject and who have a sense of ownership in one way or another in the story and how it is told. When you tackle such a well-known figure you open yourself up to criticism in a way you don’t when you are telling a fictional tale.
If the film has a motif is is the line that appears in the trailer: “Why does one run towards ruin?” Everett’s Wilde is a man who seems to revel in his own self-destruction to the dismay of the loyal friends who are at a loss of how to help him and who all seem to be pulled down into his wake.
I was especially impressed by the amount of nuance was brought to the characters of Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas played by Colin Morgan and Robert “Robbie” Ross played by Edwin Thomas even though neither relationship had a huge amount of screen time. It was refreshing to see Wilde and Douglas depicted as a real couple, not just figures in an operatic drama. They clearly have a history, love for each other, and a level of comfort with one another. They enjoy one another’s company.
It was refreshing as well to see a Robert Ross who was loyal and helpful to his friend, but who also got fed up with him at times. In the 1997 film “Wilde” Robbie Ross is entirely selfless. He doesn’t seem to have a jealous bone in his body. He is depicted comforting the poet John Gray after he’s been pushed aside in Oscar’s affections by Bosie. (In life, Ross disliked Gray.) Edwin Thomas’s Ross is a caregiver, but he does not possess infinite patience. There is a subtle moment in the film where Robbie has been in Paris, where the exiled Oscar lives, and it is clear that he has been avoiding him. Who could blame him?
That leads to one of the greatest strengths of the film. Oscar is the central focus of the drama, but he is by no means a hero. He is often unfair to his friends and careless of their feelings, and yet it is also clear that there is something in him that made so many people love him.
In many ways, Stephen Fry, from the 1997 biopic is a more ideal Wilde. He has a physical resemblance and his background as a comedian makes him a natural as a wit. It is hard to imagine better casting. I enjoyed that performance very much,but Rupert Everett’s late period Wilde gives a haunting performance. He is a complex, suffering, frustrating character. It is like comparing apples and oranges.
If there is one flaw in the 1997 film’s version of Oscar it is that Oscar has no flaws, except, perhaps a weakness for beautiful, spoiled Bosie. He is dragged to a brothel to please Bosie, but he is uncomfortable and passive. Bosie screams and rails at him, and he is patient and calls him “darling boy.”
I always prefer stories where there are no clear-cut heroes and villains, where there are messes and people are trying to deal with them as best they can; where people’s own personalities and shortcomings are part of the challenge.
In “The Happy Prince,” Oscar’s flaws are front and center. He is hurt, but he also wounds. He revels in the underworld and he finds humanity there. Both films use Wilde’s children’s story “The Happy Prince” as a narrative device. In the 1997 film it is used to show the tragedy of Wilde’s estrangement from his sons. In Everett’s film it takes on additional poignancy showing what a human place “the gutter” is.
The film is dizzying– quite literally at times– it uses a spinning camera effect a bit too much, but it does give the disoriented feel of a man in failing health, drinking too much, and looking back on his life, which is what Everett was going for. That choice means that some of the subtle moments of the supporting cast go by in a blur.
There was a lovely scene between Emily Watson, as Oscar’s wife Constance, and Edwin Thomas as Robbie Ross. Robbie has scolded Oscar for how he is treating his wife, expecting her to support him financially while he lives with the lover who brought ruin on his family. He says something like “you write her one beautiful letter and you think everything will be ok.” It is clear that he is talking as much about his relationship with Oscar, who treated him badly and then tried to win him back with beautifully-written letters. This is followed by a scene with Constance and Robbie in which Constance asks why Robbie is trying to help her. In that moment Constance realizes Robbie, too, understands what it means to love Oscar and what a terrible price comes with it. It would have been interesting to see the relationship between those characters play out more, but it would have been a different film. “The Happy Prince” is a story about Oscar, and Oscar’s isolation.
The film works well for someone like me, who knows a lot about the Wilde story already. I was not thrown by the constant moving backwards and forwards in time. The same could not be said for the person who came to the film with me. She knew a bit more than some audience members would, because she read my book, but was still disoriented by some of the brief flashbacks that for her lacked context. There are quick references to Wilde’s prison manuscript “De Profundis,” but if you didn’t already know, the significance of this would be lost. Does it matter? I’m far too seeped in the story to be able to view it that way at this point.
It is also, given the constraints of the medium, quite good history. There are people out there who can say exactly what happened here or there and what color socks Oscar was wearing at the moment. I, myself, could tell you Oscar’s standing breakfast order at the Paris hotel where he died, but I won’t. That would just be annoying. There was little that I bumped on factually.
There were places where Everett filled things in and made choices where the truth can’t be known. For example, Oscar and Bosie lived together for a time in Naples, Italy. They parted because people on both sides cut off their allowances. In order to get the tap back on, they had to agree not to live together any more. They probably had an argument about this. No one else was in the room, so we can only guess what was said. I found Everett’s idea of how this went to be compelling, although I fill it in differently in my own imagination.
There is another scene that I would probably not bring up at all, except that I have been asked about it. I am not sure what counts as a spoiler in a film where the history is known and it jumps about in time, but this is towards the end of the film so: spoiler alert: Oscar Wilde dies.
At Oscar’s funeral, Bosie and Robbie get into an argument. This didn’t happen. In fact, Bosie and Robbie were at something like a high point in their friendship at this time. Even though they had clashed a bit when Robbie was negotiating between Oscar and his wife over the allowance, that argument had blown over quickly. (Both Robbie and Bosie often argued with friends.) Between that time and Oscar’s death, Bosie had stayed in London where he “practically lived” at Robbie’s house. At the time Bosie was grateful for Robbie’s help with logistics and Robbie said nothing negative about Bosie regarding the funeral. The friends wrote each other intimate letters about boys before and after. There were little fault lines in their friendship that would eventually crack into chasms, but that had not yet happened. Even so, I was not bothered by this in the movie. Given the dreamlike nature of the film, I think it can be interpreted as addressing the subtext of the relationship, and some of that, like the break up at Naples, falls into the category of what can’t really be entirely known.