Wilde's Dieppe into despair
Friday, April 5, 2019
Justinian in Critics' Corner, Defamatorium, Film review, Miss Lumière

Rupert Everett gives us the post-Newgate decay of Oscar Wilde ... Dieppe, Paris and Naples ... The Happy Prince, reviewed by Miss Lumière ... The tail end of a regrettable defamation action ... A rouge dabbed reminder of Death in Venice ... The not-so-gay final chapter of an Irish wit, complete with the famous wallpaper scene  

Oh Wilde! And wonderful fall from grace. The story of the celebrated author's desperate downward trajectory has fascinated for over a century, so why do we need yet another rendition?

The answer is embarrassingly simple. Rupert Everett. His portrayal of Oscar Wilde in his directorial debut The Happy Prince is full of empathy, elevating Wilde's last sordid days with a kind of divine pathos.

This is no superficial portrayal of the great Irish wit.

Everett, one of Hollywood's first openly gay actors, knows the territory; it is marked in his own physical decline from youthful Adonis to paunchy middle-aged "fairy" - to quote from the film.

Love letter and passion project the film may be, but no one could sustain a charge of vanity, given the ruthless examination of Wilde's dissolution, bodily and otherwise.

Everett imbues this unhappy prince of letters with humanity, melancholy and enormous verve, sometimes simultaneously.

It's all there on screen – in the grubby scenes of his demise in a gloomy Paris hotel room, in the blue-tinged flashbacks of his scarifying public humiliation at Clapham Station on route to Newgate Prison, and in the rough and raucous and strangely sweet scenes of Oscar singing for his supper in a sleazy absinthe bar. 

Everett's script (quite excellent, for an actor) makes use of many of Wilde's witticisms and much of his writing (The Happy Prince and De Profundis in particular) to great effect, largely because they exist in an appropriate dramatic context.

The film freely jumps time frames from Wilde's high life in London to his low life in Dieppe and Paris and to sunny rat-infested Naples where he goes with his beloved Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) after his release from prison.

Poor effete Oscar did two years hard labour for gross indecency.

Readers will remember Wilde precipitated his own downfall by vaingloriously suing his lover's father, the  Marquess of Queensberry (no rules apply) for libel after the old brute sent a note to Wilde at his club, which read "For Oscar Wilde, posing as a sodomite". 

He lost. Not only the libel action, but everything else.

Everett's film is an impressionistic portrait, punctuated by dreams and substance-induced delirium which leads inexorably towards Wilde's grim end.

As a first time director, he mostly manages to pull it off, aided by some atmospheric camera work and music.

It must be said that beautiful Bosie looks uncannily like an older version of the boy who played Tadzio to Dirk Bogarde's Aschenbach in Luchino Visconti's magnificent Death in Venice.

In fact, there's a not-too-subtle homage to that film in a scene where Wilde applies rouge to his sagging jowls before facing the world. 

The film makes clear its moral stance on Bosie (a cad if ever there was) who abandons Wilde when the money runs out.

Bosie (a perfectly cast Colin Morgan) is callow and cruel, unlike Wilde's former lover and literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) who cannot understand the great man's love for him.

Wilde himself has no illusions, asking rhetorically, "Why does one run towards ruin?" and answering that "love is everything".

Emily Watson as Wilde's wife Constance, Colin Firth as his great friend Reggie Turner and Tom Wilkinson as the droll Catholic priest who gives him absolution on his deathbed, are all as good as you would expect. 

Everett is even better. In "The Happy Prince" Wilde finally has the love he so richly deserved.

"The Happy Prince" is screening in limited release now. 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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