Anyone with a passing knowledge of LGBTI British history will be familiar with the story of Oscar Wilde. The lauded, Victorian playwright and author was the subject of one of the most notorious court cases in British history.
Wilde attempted to sue the father of his male lover (Lord Alfred Douglas) for libel, after the older man called him a ‘posing sodomite’.
Wilde lost the case and found himself, instead, charged with gross indecency. Found guilty in 1895, he became arguably the most famous – and despised – homosexual in the world.
He subsequently served two years hard labor in prison. And then? Upon his release he fled to self-imposed exile in mainland Europe. He died three years later, in 1900.
Exile in Europe
Wilde’s career and court case have been covered before (Stephen Fry starred in the film Wilde in 1997). However, his life post-prison has largely been ignored in popular culture.
Written, directed by and starring Rupert Everett, The Happy Prince looks to examine those final three years of Wilde’s life. Everett himself has described it as a kind of road movie, following Wilde’s path to northern France, Naples, and – finally – near poverty in Paris.
Wilde spends much of his time with friends Robert Ross (Edwin Thomas) and Reggie Taylor (Colin Firth). He initially hopes for a return to a normal, working life. But when a planned reunion with his wife (Emily Watson) and sons fails to materialize, and he finds himself verbally abused in the street by a group of young British men, the realization dawns that there is no way back to the privileges he once enjoyed.
Although at first promising he will never again see Douglas, the young lover who played such a role in his downfall, the two are reunited and attempt to start a life together in Naples. It’s a short-lived, tempestuous experiment that falls apart as soon as their money begins to dry up.
Although getting by on scraps of royalties, Wilde gravitates towards the absinthe dens of Paris, befriending rent boys and runaways. Ill health eventually catches up with him. It’s believed he died from a meningitis infection. Whether this was due to syphilis or complications from an operation are unknown.
Labor of love
The Happy Prince has clearly been a labor of love for Everett. Although he’s sometimes been known to upset with his foot-in-mouth pronouncements on gay politics, he’s an actor we don’t see enough of on the big screen.
Fortunately, he’s one who seems to be carving out a more consistent career as he ages – and the Happy Prince puts him back centre stage in a dream role. He plays Wilde as an alcohol-soaked, jowly and overweight protagonist. You know he’s ruthlessly intelligent, but like Everett himself, he’s not someone easy to love or who appears to be overflowing with warmth.
However, when the film reveals snatches of the humiliations heaped upon Wilde – spat upon at Clapham Junction station while awaiting prison transfer – it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for him.
His huge talent was no protection to living at a time when presenting as anything other a heterosexual was impossible.
This is not a flashy, fast-paced biopic – some may even find it a little slow in places – but its claustrophobic and dank atmosphere suits the subject matter. The Happy Prince shines a light on a much-overlooked chapter of Wilde’s life story.
For those old enough to remember, it’s a treat to see Everett and Firth together on screen again. The two enjoyed breakthrough roles as teenage students in 1984’s Another Country.
Everett even finds a small cameo role for Beatrice Dalle (of Betty Blue fame), with whom he had a short but intense love affair in the mid-80s. Credit also to Colin Morgan, who plays Douglas as a suitably waspish and vanity-driven queen.
The Happy Prince opens in UK movie theaters on 15 June.