Words by Caspar Salmon
It’s with a pleasing symmetry that Rupert Everett smuggles some dashes of queerness and subversion into this apparently classical biopic. What better way to pay tribute to Oscar Wilde, who for years succeeded in sneaking a sharp, dangerous, acidic worldview into ostensibly pleasing entertainments intended for the Victorian bourgeoisie? In his lurid and – let’s say it – faggy depiction of the playwright, Everett gives the full measure of how truly alien and transgressive Wilde was.
Everett – who is at once writer, director and ham in this lavish production – plants his story towards the end of Wilde’s life, when imprisonment, divorce and public outcry led him to penury and exile in France. From there, a series of flashbacks set the scene as to how Oscar ended up penniless in Paris, following his incarceration, and stays in Normandy and Naples.
The opening beats of the movie give you a flavour of where the film wants to head. Our first encounter with Wilde finds him grunting and wheezing, ill, almost monstrous, with a fruitiness in his demeanour that is almost confrontational. In Everett’s interpretation, Wilde resembles an exact three-way cross between Reynolds Woodcock, Quentin Crisp, and Danny De Vito’s Penguin from Batman Returns, with a dash of Patsy Stone every time he puts on a leering, toothy pout.
Oscar then sings for his supper, with simpering, shit-eating feyness, in a rowdy French brasserie where Beatrice Dalle is the madam, which immediately elevates the film into top-tier campery. There is subversion here too, for this is where we meet the teenager that Wilde pays for sex, and his little brother whom he plies with beer and cocaine. (“Why not, it’s the holidays!” cries Oscar, in one of many laugh-out-loud moments in the film) In the film’s most brazen touch, these youngsters are juxtaposed and compared with Wilde’s small, estranged children back in London. This is audacious and welcome.
Everett can’t maintain these levels of flamingness throughout: the fun is in watching his balancing act. Wickedly acrid bon mots (“Let’s talk about something more cheerful, like the death of your father”) are made to fight against the film’s classical set design and creaky rhythm; a treacly shot of a seascape will be succeeded by a raucously half-nude all boys party. Everett has made something both commercial (and the film’s more academic touches are something of a drag) and fag-friendly. It’s easy to overstate how dissident the film is – but then again, it also features the phrase “shit-stained sheets”, a tasty jab at Queen Victoria, and two uses of the word ‘cunt’ – once in a church, and once at a funeral.
The filmmaking is uneven. A scene of gay-bashing lacks the requisite dread because Everett’s shot selection is so tame, and the colours throughout are wishy-washy. But a lightning-quick montage at the beginning – showing Wilde getting sentenced, shaved and locked up – is brutal, and shows that Everett also has some lively ideas. Likewise, Colin Firth is here for the King’s Speech crowd, but Colin Morgan tears it all up as a shrill, vain, sexy, despicable, otherworldly Bosie. Seeing him with his dyed hair and pink lipstick, looking hardly Victorian at all, shows how outré the film can be; in one scene, with tousled locks and half-undressed, he looks half like Tom Cruise in Interview With The Vampire, and half like Basic Instinct-era Sharon Stone. His performance seems designed to elicit gay joy.
Of course, The Happy Prince must also tell a story, and the fact is that Wilde’s last years are achingly tragic. The film is rather less successful at seizing the personal, e(a)rnest Wilde, but nevertheless manages to make a good case for him on occasion. His interactions with his ragged French youths are fairly touching, if cursory, and the idea of his confraternity of homosexual men coming to his help is sometimes movingly written. Deathbed scenes go on for way too long, and there is something syrupy and kitsch about the final fifteen minutes. But the idea of this film, and the wobbly line it treads between prestige piece and queer testimonial, make it, in its least compromised moments, something very close to a camp treasure.
The Happy Prince premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released in the UK later this year.