Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The Happy Prince ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th June, 2018

The Happy Prince 1In Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography of Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright’s final couple of years — in other words, the period between his release from prison and his death in the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris — gets somewhat short shrift, partly because Ellmann himself was a dying man as he struggled to complete his book. I have long maintained that that means that Wilde’s exile is nearly always portrayed as pure tragedy, whereas in fact any close reading of his voluminous letters from 1897 to 1900 makes clear he enjoyed many good times and sexual encounters in France and Italy, free of the moral strictures of perfidious Albion (less so in Switzerland, where he thought the people looked like turnips). Indeed, as his devoted friend and first homosexual lover, Robbie Ross, recalled soon after Oscar’s death, apart from a few barren periods when his monthly allowance ran out, he was able to have champagne every day. I was delighted that in Rupert Everett’s films, The Happy Prince, which is now on release in London, the champagne does indeed flow. As do the willing youths of Naples and the Paris boulevards, including the delightful young soldier Maurice Gilbert, who was passed around among members of what would in the 1930s would wittily be dubbed The Homintern of well-connected queer gentlemen.

The Happy Prince 2But Rupert Everett (who wrote, directed and partly produced The Happy Prince, as well as playing the lead role) focuses particularly on the tragic triangle of Oscar’s main loves: his wife Constance (by this time handicapped after a fall down stairs in the House Beautiful in Tite Street and doomed to die before her husband), Robbie Ross, and the “golden boy”, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Colin Morgan (unrecognisably blond) was an inspired choice to play Bosie, as he radiates exactly the sort of pretty petulance and sporadic vindictiveness that made Bosie mad, bad and dangerous to know — a true scion of the Black Douglases. At times one wants Oscar just to slap him, though one knows that he won’t, besotted as he is, despite everything that has happened. Instead, it is (in this film’s imaginative relating of the story) Robbie — sensitively and beautifully played by Edwin Thomas — who lashes out at Oscar’s graveside. But it is an empty victory, because everyone has in fact lost, in the battle for Oscar’s love and compassion.

The Happy Prince 3Rupert Everett’s own portrayal of Wilde externalises the playwright’s inner torments and bitter regrets, so that his face is often distorted and his visage a ravaged mockery of his own glittering past — a sort of walking Picture of Dorian Gray, brought down from the attic. I am not convinced that Oscar or Reggie Turner (Colin Firth, as one has never seen him) would have been quite so ready with the expletives as they are in the film. But a lot of the scenes are redolent of fin-de-siecle atmosphere and historical fact, though the notion recounted that Robbie Ross at the age of 17 picked up Oscar in a public lavatory was actually the scurrilous tittle-tattle of the self-aggrandising pornographer Frank Harris, rather than the more prosaic truth that Robbie came into Oscar’s orbit because Constance (Emily Watson in the film) and Robbie’s mother were both active in the Chelsea Women’s Liberal Association. Of course, film-makers must be allowed some poetic licence, and Everett only had the length of a feature film to put over his concept of Wilde, a person who has dominated much of his artistic thinking for years (as it did earlier with Stephen Fry). The title of the film comes from Oscar’s first real literary success, a book of short stories for children, originally composed for his young sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, but then polished and made suitable for an adult audience as well, with a profound moral message, unlike some of the sanctimonious twaddle wrapped up in some other Victorian fairy tales. The story is used imaginatively to bookend the film, and is at other times cleverly woven into the narrative. So although this movie is not perfect, there is much in it that is beautiful, and sad, and gives one cause for reflection.

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5 Responses to “The Happy Prince ****”

  1. Cat Rudge said

    The film presents a rather saintly version of Robbie Ross when historical sources indicate that he had much more ‘side’. Didn’t he betray Wilde when the writer went to Naples so that his allowance from Constance was withdrawn? To quote Reggie Turner (the nicest of men by all accounts), ‘he (Ross) was intensely vain and jealous and stopped at nothing to get his ends … Well, he got what he liked – recognition.’ His great achievement was to restore Wilde’s reputation after his death but I don’t think his love and loyalty were unconditional by any means.

    • Hi Cat, I am curious the source on the Reggie Turner quote. I know he and Ross clashed. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I agree in general that Ross is often presented as an uncomplicated saintly figure in contrast to Douglas the devil figure. I found both more complex than that when I studied them. I don’t think it’s fair to say Ross betrayed Wilde after Naples, I think he did the best he could in the situation at that particular time. I do think he made other mistakes though where it came to Wilde’s affairs.

      • jonathanfryer said

        One needs to remember that Robbie felt great sympathy for Constance and the boys, and he had to walk a tightrope between helping them and being loyal to Oscar. He was not a saint, but certainly he was trying to reconcile ireconcilables, and should best be remembered for the work he did in getting the Wilde heritage in order after Oscar’s death.

  2. Interesting analysis!! I ought to check out the movie.

  3. For my review of its New York release, see here:
    https://oscarwildeinamerica.blog/2018/10/13/the-happy-prince-2018/

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