Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

The Happy Prince

Monday evening, November 5th, we went to see the movie The Happy Prince, which tells the sad story of Oscar Wilde’s exile, decline and death following his release from prison.

(For those who might not be familiar with the author’s story, he unwisely sued the brutish and vengeful Marquis of Queensberry (he of the boxing rules), for libel, for having left an open card addressed to Wilde as a “posing sodomite” (i.e., a poseur and a homosexual). Not only did Wilde lose the libel suit, he was thereafter prosecuted for and convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years in prison. This is addressed in brief flashbacks in the film.)

Essentially, Wilde had gone from being arguably Britain’s most celebrated man of letters to its most notorious pervert and sex criminal overnight. That did much to break his spirit. The deliberately harsh and degrading prison regimen (such was the state of penology at the time) did the rest, as well as break his health.

The film starts by showing us Wilde (played by Rupert Everett) in his last days, essentially reduced to a state of beggary between scanty royalty payments, his only source of income. Then we go back to see him arriving in France after having left prison, and starting a new life as “Sebastian Melmoth.” (The pseudonym is a literary joke, as Melmoth the Wanderer was an 1820 Gothic novel by Irish playwright, novelist and clergyman Charles Maturin, Wilde’s great-uncle.) However, trouble arises when his disguise is penetrated. He garners further trouble for himself when he takes up again with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan), the Marquis of Queensberry’s errant son. It had been Wilde’s relationship with Bosie that touched off the ruinous libel suit, and it was a condition of the separation settlement with Wilde’s wife, Constance (Emily Watson) that they not see one another. Constance cut off Wilde’s allowance as a result, leaving him without funds except for royalties, a dire situation since he could no longer write. Under family pressure, the two parted, and Wilde took up his final residence in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1900, of meningitis.

The movie is quite sympathetic, showing the extent to which Wilde was loved by his friends, including Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), and even Bosie in his selfish and stupid way, but they could do little for him. Constance is shown as being grieved by his situation, but her own ill health and care for the moral upbringing of their two sons kept her from offering Wilde any aid, either.

The movie’s title is taken from one of Wilde’s bittersweet fantasy stories, about a gold and jewel bedecked statue that contrives to give away its valuable coatings to the poor: whereupon, the statue is dismounted and melted down because “As he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful,”—which might have been said of Wilde himself, at least in his own opinion.

The movie was very well done, in our opinion. Everett made a very good Wilde, and the acting in general was sensitive and nuanced, with the script being unsparing of the characters’ flaws, although understanding of them. I particularly liked that Bosie (Wilde’s bad boy lover) and Robbie Ross (his considerate, sensible lover) each at different times rage “He (the other) cannot understand the way in which he (Wilde) loves me!"—which, given the story as presented was probably true for each of them.

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Tags: history, movies
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