Audrey Kupferberg: The Happy Prince

Nov 16, 2018

One of the most celebrated playwrights and poets of the late 20th century was Oscar Wilde.  He was an outstanding wit, a charmer in so many ways.  To this day, Wilde’s works are read and performed.  THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, AN IDEAL HUSBAND, and the novel THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY are a few of his best-known pieces. He also wrote stories for children, including one called “The Happy Prince.”

A new film called THE HAPPY PRINCE renders events of the final three years of Wilde’s life.  He died in Paris at the age of 46.  While one might expect the final years of such a flamboyant, beloved literary figure to have been joyful, this was not the case.  In the mid-1890s, Wilde became entrenched in a courtroom battle with the Marquis of Queensberry over criminal libel.  As the details of the charge were laid out, it became apparent that Wilde was involved in sexual relationships with other men.  These included an obsessive love affair with the son of the Marquis.  Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison confinement.  The embarrassment and shame of his punishment ate into his heart, soul, and body -- particularly during a public instance where he was shouted at and spat upon during a half hour wait between trains while being transferred to Reading Gaol.

He was released in 1897, taken to France by loyal friends, and over the next three years lived in an alcohol and drug stupor until he died of meningitis in late 1900.  Wilde was impoverished and regularly walked Paris streets alone, the sad sight of a ruined man, the walking dead.

THE HAPPY PRINCE (Yes, it’s an ironic title which may confuse some potential viewers!) attempts to capture the Oscar Wilde of that miserable, final period.  The creative force behind THE HAPPY PRINCE is British actor/writer Rupert Everett.  Everett wrote and directed THE HAPPY PRINCE and portrays Oscar Wilde with the help of elaborate make-up.  As a Wilde aficionado, I really wanted this film to work.  Unfortunately, I left the theater feeling disappointed.

Everett’s film drones on and on.  Perhaps the challenge of bringing alive a man who is pretty much described as the walking dead is too great.  We see Everett as Wilde desperate, adrift, and wholly unpleasant.  We see very little descent to his final decline.  At the start, he is broken; at the end, he is broken—just poorer and with more ailments.  There are a host of interesting British actors who have small roles.  Anna Chancellor, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Colin Firth among others…. The end credits list many producer credits, implying that the film was produced with the aid of many small investments.

THE HAPPY PRINCE is a work of passion and love for Rupert Everett, who has been tied to its production for a good number of years and who is himself openly gay and an activist for a number of causes.  Why he couldn’t come up with a more engrossing storyline and why he as an actor couldn’t present a more dynamic portrayal of the final years of Oscar Wilde, is difficult to judge.  For a deeper and more exciting film about this captivating literary genius, I recommend the 1998 feature, titled WILDE, starring the incomparable Stephen Fry!

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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