Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2018: "The Happy Prince"

Michael Hayward

The key points in Oscar Wilde's fall from fame and literary success in London are well known: his self-destructive relationship with Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas; his trial, and eventual conviction in London, on charges of sodomy; the sentence: two years at hard labour; and his final years, living in exile in Paris. There is an incredible dramatic arc to this fall from grace, so it is perhaps no surprise that actor Rupert Everett would choose to make his directorial debut with this film, The Happy Prince, which focuses on the tragic conclusion to Wilde's life: his final years in Paris.

The Happy Prince is a kind of passion project for Everett, who wrote the script and directs, as well as portraying Oscar Wilde (as an aside: having recently rewatched the 1997 film Wilde, with Stephen Fry playing Oscar Wilde, I found myself resisting Everett's portrayal of Wilde; perhaps he didn't look enough like Stephen Fry).

If there are flaws in this film (and there are) the main charge would be that of self-indulgence: Everett unable to resist the temptation to include a few too many scenes which highlight the utter squalor of Wilde's life in Paris: the sallow light found in cheap hotel rooms; the dark and semi-deserted back streets of Paris at night; the noisy and crowded bars where Wilde seeks comfort and company (and—if we are to believe the script—where he occasionally sings old show tunes, in English, to a rapt and supportive crowd of Parisian drunks). And of course Everett has to include—briefly—Wilde's famous line about the wallpaper in his Paris hotel room ("My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.")

The film's title, The Happy Prince, comes from one of Wilde's most well-known works, a story for children, and Everett intercuts his film with scenes of Wilde in happier times, reading the story to his two children. Later in the film, as a kind of ironic counterbalance, Everett gives us matching scenes of Wilde in his Paris hotel room, telling the story again to a pair of street urchins that he has befriended.

Emily Watson plays Wilde's wife, Constance, and Colin Firth has a supporting role as Wilde's loyal friend Robbie Ross. There are no more screenings of The Happy Prince at VIFF, but I expect that it will appear again in general release. A trailer is available here.



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