A look at Oscar Wilde’s last years in The Happy Prince (MA15+)
Magnificent wordsmith Oscar Wilde headed off to Europe permanently once his two-year English jail term for sodomy had been completed in 1897. He never returned and in fact died in Paris aged only 46.
British actor Rupert Everett has had a bit of a background in playing Wilde. Between 2012 and 2016 he was the star in the stage hit The Judas Kiss which played on and off in those years between London and New York. This time he not only acted as Oscar and directed the Wilde film, but also wrote the script.
After his boat-train trip from London Oscar’s friends Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) have Oscar booked in at a Paris hotel under the pseudonym ‘Sebastian Melmoth’. It’s a name he uses right through France and when he stops over in Naples.
And who are Reggie and Robbie? Well, Reggie is one of the last surviving members of Oscar’s London artistic crowd while Robbie is Oscar’s literary editor and executor. He was briefly also one of Wilde’s lovers. And besotted Wilde’s main love Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan) is also never far away. It was Bosie’s father the Marquis of Queensberry who initiated the court action which landed Oscar in gaol.
One Paris scene is memorable. When, after seeking sanctuary in a church from a gang of holidaying British bigots who have chased himself, Reggie and Robbie through the Parisian streets, it’s Oscar who turns on them and thunders:
“The natural habitat of the hypocrite is England.
“Go back there and leave us in peace.”
The louts lower their clubs and sticks and slink off.
It’s not always middle range hotels or boarding houses Oscar frequents in Paris. He winds up with one 20-year-old rent boy in a backstreet Paris slum and when awoken by the lad’s young brother he entertains the tough youngster. Just as he’d done with his own two sons (we see flashbacks of them quite a bit) with a great deal of flair Wilde recites his own poem: The Happy Prince. A swallow alights on a golden statue of a European potentate and is implored to take the Prince’s golden leaf covering and bright blue bejewelled precious stone eyes. He’s then told to drop them so that poor people can sell the extremely valuable objects and thus obtain money for food. Just like the reaction from his own family the battling slum kid loves the poem delivered in Wilde’s evocative, over-the-top tone.
Oscar eventually ends up in Naples (an easy task this one for Everett who’s fluent in Italian) where he befriends another rent boy: this time a waiter in the hotel he and Bosie are staying. They’re penniless because Oscar’s wife Constance (Emily Watson) has discontinued her allowance while Bosie’s mother has cut him off as well. Somehow they not only get hold of handy stocks of wine but quite a bit of cocaine – a constant companion to Oscar in his travels through France and Italy.
One of the best scenes, to me, was shot in a less than A grade Paris hotel bar before Wilde left for Italy. Pressed by the owner (Beatrice Dalle) for payment of his sizeable bar bill broke Oscar comes up with a compromise. He leaps up onto a table in a bar corner and belts out a bawdy music hall number – a rendition which just manages to stave off a looming bar brawl.
After the Naples sojourn and back in Paris Oscar’s health declines rapidly. He suffers seriously from meningitis and the end comes when he’s just 46.
Oscar is buried in Paris and we’ve seen his tomb in the vast Pere Lachaise cemetery. According to groundsmen in the cemetery it’s one of the most visited in the whole huge complex, along with the grave of The Doors frontman Jim Morrison.