Wild(e) About Oscar
Rupert Everett's passion project reunites him with a familiar character.
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde wrote short stories and fairy tales, seven complete plays, one novel, four collections of poetry, one long poem, and countless essays and letters. He was a noted wit and courted high society at the pinnacle of his career in the late 19th century. In 1895, he was imprisoned for two years after being found guilty of gross indecency. On his release, he moved to France – broken up with a dismal sojourn in Naples – where he lived in a state of impoverishment and ill health, before his death, aged 46, in 1900.
Wilde's infamy may have obscured his brilliance as a writer for some years, but a shift in attitudes towards homosexuality over the last half century has seen his treatment perceived as a grave injustice by the Crown and a hypocritical Victorian society. His body of work, particularly his novel 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', the poem 'The Ballad of Reading Goal' and the plays 'Lady Windermere's Fan', 'A Woman of No Importance', 'Salomé', 'The Ideal Husband' and 'The Importance of Being Earnest', frequently appear on schools' syllabus and he now occupies a position as one of the great writers and wits of his age.
Rupert Everett's The Happy Prince realises a long-held wish to explore an aspect of Wilde's life – his final days in France. The film's title, bitterly ironic considering the writer's circumstances at the time, references one of the fairy tales he published in 1888 and which Everett's mother read to him as a boy. (That collection also included The Selfish Giant, which Clio Barnard successfully adapted in 2013.)
This isn't the first time that Everett has played Wilde. In 2012, he starred in David Hare's 'The Judas Kiss' at London's Hampstead Theatre, which then transferred to the West End before playing to audiences in Canada and the US. It detailed the period surrounding the infamous trial and its aftermath, and won Everett an Olivier for Best Actor. His Wilde in the play was a broken man whose dazzling wit had become merciless. But his cruel words were spoken out of fear, desperation and the pain of being abandoned – by a lover, the society he once entertained and the country he loved.
It's also not the first time that Oscar Wilde has been represented on the screen. In 1960 alone he was played by Robert Morley in Oscar Wilde and Peter Finch in The Trials of Oscar Wilde. More recently, Stephen Fry portrayed him in Wilde (1997). As for the writer's works, there have been numerous adaptations.
The plays have tended to receive mostly tasteful adaptations that play up Wilde's wordplay, social comedy and farce. Best of all is Anthony Asquith's 1952 version of The Importance of Being Earnest and Albert Lewin's take on The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), which overshadows the woefully misjudged Dorian Gray (2009). That character was also one of the band that made up The Extraordinary League of Gentleman (2003), which melded Wilde with Steampunk to stultifying effect. But however strange that film wanted to be, it doesn't compare with Al Pacino's Salomé and Wild Salomé (2013/2011) or Ken Russell's even more outré Salomé's Last Dance (1988).
Everett's film assumes our familiarity with Wilde's brilliance. Instead, it focuses on the indignity Wilde experienced after falling foul of the law. There are flashbacks to his more glorious early years, which contrast with moments when people treat him like a pariah. But at its heart, Everett's film is a moving study of a man who, from his place in the gutter, could no longer see the stars.
[Ian Haydn Smith, editor of the Curzon magazine]
The Happy Prince
Following his release from prison, Oscar Wilde spent his last years a shadow of the character that he once was. Not that his waspish humour left him, as star and director Rupert Everett highlights in this intelligent and moving portrait.
It’s a superb performance by Everett, conveying both the pain and preening of the noted author and wit. He is ably supported by Colin Firth and Emily Watson.
The Happy Prince plays on our screens from Friday 15 June.
Rupert Everett joins us at Curzon Mayfair, 3.25pm on Saturday 16 June for a special screening + Q&A for The Happy Prince.