Oscar Wilde is well-known for his scathing, yet hilarious commentary on aristocratic society through various novels, plays, etc. His early life was filled with as much decadence as the characters he wrote about. Most people who know of him know more about his wit than his sexual preference. Even now, being openly gay can still be a societal struggle, but at least in America, it’s not illegal. London in the late 1800’s was a completely different animal altogether, and The Happy Prince shows us its feral nature by providing a look into the last years of Oscar Wilde.
Wilde’s flamboyant nature was a secret to no one. In fact, it was one of the keys to his undeniable charm and often helped make him the life of any party. With works like “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, “The Importance of Being Earnest”, and “An Ideal Husband”, Wilde had the rare privilege of simultaneously being part of high society and openly mocking it in his works. His early life is well-documented, being a known figure in the public’s eye, but Wilde’s true complexity comes after he is found guilty of homosexuality. A “crime” that he was only recently posthumously pardoned, only 120 years too late. The Happy Prince examines the last few years of the writer’s life with a severe and uncompromising honesty that Oscar Wilde himself would have appreciated.
In this obvious passion project, Rupert Everett writes, directs and stars in the film as gay icon Oscar Wilde. Everett shows us a grim, but intimate look into the mind of the artist, using Wilde’s children story “The Happy Prince” as a somber allegory. The film’s story is very carefully crafted around the child’s tale, turning Wilde into the prince by showing his own social and physical decline. Through the lens of the character’s alcoholism, we revisit his greatest triumphs from his memories, the way any drunk would fondly recall the past. In it, we see glimpses of his glory days so as to establish a stark contrast between the past and present.
Everett develops the story full of well-deserved sympathy for Wilde, while never turning the film into anything close to being apologist. Being imprisoned for being himself was beyond Wilde’s control, and he was a victim of the time, but his self-destructive and -indulgent nature ended up being the ultimate caustic force that leads to his early death. As the Happy Prince, Everett puts Wilde in the position to view himself as the martyr of his own story, and to an extent, this is true. Wilde brought joy and laughter to countless people, much like the Happy Prince did when he had the swallow take everything of value from his person and give it to the poor. Wilde gave pieces of himself out to the masses, only to be rejected when the truth about his sexual preference came out. Like the Prince, Wilde’s heart broke at their rejection, leaving him to die a slow death over the span of 5 years, but rightfully immortalizing him as an artist for his contributions to society.
The film’s visual style reflects the character’s outlook, providing muted colors for his present, but warm, more vibrant tones for his memories. The way the film weaves the time periods together is near seamless, creating a natural progression that feels accurate to the human experience while keeping a steady pace. The set designs are like accents to every scene, creating an atmosphere for us to be effortlessly absorbed into, becoming the proverbial fly on the wall during the most intimate moments. The costume design in the film has the same detailed beauty as the set designs, except they become moving artwork that each character dons like a second skin. They help establish the time period and add an undeniable authenticity to an already stellar production.
Rupert Everett uses The Happy Prince as a vehicle to transport us, but what really drives the film home is Everett’s own transformation into Oscar Wilde. To call it a performance would grossly undersell it since he doesn’t only embody the character, but completely becomes him. Based on historically noted nuances, Wilde’s well-noted, flamboyant bravado, and well-documented wit, Everett gives life to the character as only a person who feels a deep connection and understanding with him ever could. It goes beyond the impressive physical transformation, or even the mental and emotional one, giving Everett his best performance to date, and the definitive portrayal of Oscar Wilde that will not be surpassed any time soon, if ever. Even among seasoned talents like Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, and Tom Wilkinson, Rupert Everett steals every scene he is in.
Oscar Wilde was only recently (2017) posthumously pardoned for his conviction based on his sexual preference. Others like Alan Turing received the same type of pardon, and that is why this film’s relevance proves an important reminder that while great strides have been made in the UK and US, the injustices of the past must never be forgotten. Although Wilde continues to be culturally and socially relevant based on his works alone, his life serves as an example of how far the world has left to go, when a man’s life can be completely destroyed solely based on his sexual preference. Although we’ll never know what Wilde may have created had he been able to live a full life, The Happy Prince seems a worthy predecessor because it proves to be as much a work of Rupert Everett as it does his muse, Oscar Wilde.