The Happy Prince

‘Both Sides Now’: Sally Minogue and Stefania Ciocia give alternative views of Rupert Everett’s film about Oscar Wilde.

Stefania and I had promised each other that we’d go together to see The Happy Prince since we’d independently watched Alan Yentob’s Imagine documentary about Rupert Everett’s colossal struggle to get this film, a personal act of devotion, made. I was confidently expecting to be moved – so many of our Curzon outings end in tears (Woolf Works, Sunset Song, almost any opera live relay). It’s part of the enjoyment. But, moved as I was, it was perhaps not in the way that I foresaw – it was deeper, more powerful, and not altogether understandable; and Stefania, unusually, was not moved, as she’ll articulate later. This mismatch itself has something to say about the whole business of art and how it relates to life. But our aesthetic responses are sometimes so deeply unknowable that they take us, as the ones experiencing them, by surprise; and this can be true both when we are moved, and when we are not (one is not better than the other – for we discriminate in our aesthetic emotions).

Now, this was something Wilde knew all about. He was the non-plus ultra, perfection, as far as understanding aesthetics were concerned. For he understood that the aesthetic – as invoked in the Aesthetic movement – was not simply a matter of surface or technical beauty, but involved within that the deeply emotional and moral. Of course, Wilde’s own artistic technique and manner of expression, as well as his individual persona, gave the lie to this. At all costs he could not express such things seriously; but that did not mean that he did not take them seriously. All that changed after his prison experience, with De Profundis (which Stefania will explore later) and The Ballad of Reading Gaol the ultimate artistic expression of his new understanding. But what Rupert Everett shows, in his triumph of an account of Wilde’s last days, is that in his life Wilde would make no such concession.

What moved me most about Everett’s admirably faithful account of Wilde’s post-prison exile in Europe was that he showed the man not learning from his experience. He was still prey to the same appetites and desire for performative excess; he recognised his own need for sexual satisfaction even if it meant paying money to achieve it; he recognised his own need for money and wasn’t ashamed to take it where he could get it. Underlying this was some sense in Wilde that he deserved it, both as an artist and as a man; and the constant loving support of his friends, most notably Robbie Ross, bears that out. The humiliation and physical and moral degradation of his prison sentence – where, remember, he was put to the treadmill for hours at a time – behind him, what was he not owed?

Counterbalancing that impulse in the film is, of course, the pull of his wife and boys, but especially his boys. The title of the film comes from Wilde’s fable intended for children and interwoven into the prison and post-prison action is touching footage of Wilde at the peak of his confidence as an artist and a man, telling the story to his two young sons to lull them at bedtime. In a move of genius, Everett twins these innocents with the brothers whom Wilde exploits sexually. Except that we are made to feel that they are not exploited. Here Everett is careful to ensure that Wilde has sex only with the older brother; but he still contrives to make the pair feel like innocents also, babes in the wood who find shelter and solace at Wilde’s deathbed, finally privy to the end both of his told tale and of his story.

Neither of them ends well. Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’ reminds me of St Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Both are fables of love and loss, where the loss is inherent in the love from the start, and perhaps even powers it. The happy prince gives up the jewels and gold leaf that make him beautiful to aid the poor of the city he presides over, and denuded of his finery is pulled down to be replaced by a statue of the mayor; the swallow who assists him dies for love of him because by staying too long he freezes to death in the winter temperatures. It’s a bleak tale, but it’s a tale of love nonetheless. Wilde must surely have known when he rekindled his relationship with Bosie that there would be no happy ending; but, for all the bitter knowledge displayed in De Profundis, and for all he knew of what it would mean for his relationship with his wife and sons, he went ahead with it. However little Bosie deserved it, Wilde loved him; and anyway, what does deserving have to do with it? Everett’s film is shot through with ambivalence; it never allows us a simple take on Wilde but shows us him in all his excess and all his wisdom, with lots of difficult stages in between. It even shows how those who supported him unconditionally could also be driven mad by him. A Don Giovanni for the gay world, then and now, Wilde goes down unrepenting, as he should; for in this case there is nothing to repent.

Cue the end of the film: I am, of course, weeping (well, I was primed to) and I turn to check how Stefania is doing. But she is dry-eyed. And so to the other half of this story.


Enter the Philistine to Sally’s Aesthete, the Caliban to her Ariel. I didn’t have to wait for the credits to roll to work out that Sally’s response to the screening would be infinitely more perceptive than my own. She’d laughed and cried in all the right places, while I’d been fidgety, and uncharacteristically impassive apart for a thrilling jolt of surprise at the gorgeous, instantly recognisable view of the Gulf of Naples. What was wrong with me, physically acting like a child on a sugar buzz, but feeling – or rather, not feeling – like patience on a monument? It’s not that I had been bored. This is a beautiful film. The performances are excellent. The attention to detail is exquisite. The rendition of Wilde’s contradictions eschews sentimental oversimplifications and the predictable shallowness of hagiography: The Happy Prince is the portrait of a man in all his self-destructiveness, seediness, humanity, desperate strength, and contagious lust for life. It is both an obvious labour of love and a terrific artistic achievement for Rupert Everett, whose own rise and fall in Hollywood circles – though not as cataclysmic as Wilde’s – injects an added layer of poignancy to the whole enterprise.

I left the cinema frustrated with myself, rather than with the film. The long and the short of it is that I wasn’t moved. And I wasn’t moved in ways that I couldn’t quite understand or articulate at first. I scrambled around for reasons, and the best I could come up with – outside the realm of pusillanimous “it’s not you; it’s me” justifications – is that the very beauty of the film, and of its elegant, meticulously conceived symbolism – had anaesthetised me to it. This impression of not having ‘got’ the film intensified as I listened to Sally’s lucid counterarguments about why these stylistic choices – which I saw as the anaesthetisation of suffering, in a nutshell – enhance, rather than detract from, the film’s success.

I trundled back home having made peace with the fact that I’d been having an off day, and that this ‘sensitivity bypass’ would probably go away of its own accord, after a good night’s sleep.[1] The only criticism of the film that I wasn’t prepared to reconsider was the length and the realism of the deathbed scenes. It’s not that I am particularly squeamish. I have just watched pretty much back-to-back all four series of The Bridge almost without flinching – ok, occasionally screening the most gruesome scenes through splayed fingers – but those Scandinoir murders are so extraordinarily choreographed, so inconceivably violent, so grotesque as to inure me to them. I can see the agony – and I don’t enjoy it one bit – but I can push it to one side because, in the economy of the narrative, these deaths are primarily plot devices. The brutal mundanity of Wilde’s decline hit too close to home for me, so I simply shut down, not having much emotional energy left to spend these days. But, and this is what is amazing about art, sometimes the shock of recognition is welcome, no matter how painful. It’s a soothing reminder that we are not alone. One must be in the right mood to receive it and respond to it, though.

In our post-cinema conversation, Sally had mentioned De Profundis. I’d confessed that I had not read it. I have now. Rather like Everett’s The Happy Prince, De Profundis is a post-lapsarian narrative, unfolding in the aftermath of Wilde’s public disgrace, after the disastrous libel suit he brought against the Marquess of Queensberry, Bosie’s father. Wilde wrote this most personal text in Reading Gaol, towards the end of his two-year hard-labour sentence, as a very long letter addressed to Bosie. This stratagem was necessitated by the prison regulations at the time, which forbade inmates from writing artistic compositions, but allowed them to engage in private correspondence. On his release, Wilde had the manuscript of De Profundis with him; the letter had ostensibly never been finished. Extracts from it would be published posthumously in 1905 by Robbie Ross, Wilde’s loyal friend and literary executor.

As I read it, I underline and jot down notes about several passages, and I finally see the Oscar Wilde I couldn’t quite see, or open up to, in The Happy Prince. He writes of suffering as of a transformative experience: “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground. Some day people will realise what that means. They will know nothing of life till they do”. While I baulk at this quasi-mystical turn and quibble with the finality of the pronouncement – contentment should teach us as much about life as more intense emotions, and pleasure is not synonymous with careless hedonism, I want to argue back – I highlight the passage nonetheless.

I also single out Wilde’s recollection of a small act of kindness, and its effect not just on himself, the disgraced receiver, but on the bystanders: “— waited in the long dreary corridor that, before the whole crowd, whom an action so sweet and simple had hushed into silence, he might gravely raise his hat to me, as handcuffed and with bowed head, I passed him by”. Having to navigate the complex syntax I feel invited to linger on the image, and savour this moment of compassion extended discreetly, discreetly accepted, but never forgotten: “I have never said one single word to him about what he did. I do not know to the present moment whether he is aware that I was even conscious of his action. It is not a thing for which one can render formal thanks in formal words.” In fact, it is “a secret debt that I am glad to think I can never possibly repay”. The impossibility of reciprocating makes the gift more precious, for the giver and recipient. Take this one step further, and you have the beau geste, of which the decadent Art for Art’s Sake is a supreme manifestation, deep down imbued with an ethical charge as well as aesthetic value.

Wilde goes on to talk about the regenerative power of sympathy, occasionally lapsing into romantic generalisations I have less time for (“the poor are wise, more charitable, more kind, more sensitive than we are”). I find this earnestness both embarrassing and endearing. It makes me feel as if I am intruding on words that were not meant for public consumption. Still, I read on. Wilde admits that he has been the architect of his own ruin, and proceeds to chart a sort of spiritual awakening, which includes his discovery of humility and a lengthy discussion of “Christ as the precursor of the romantic movement in life”. Unlike Sally and her reaction to The Happy Prince, I am looking for a Wilde who has learnt his lesson, because the lesson in question is about grief, which I am mired in still.[2]

Suspicious as I am of tidy narrative threads, I am captivated by Wilde’s epiphanies in De Profundis. Maybe it’s the confessional tone that draws me in: its “authenticity”, in modern parlance. It’s a roundabout authenticity, of course. A retrospective one, if there is such a thing. Wilde is determined to carve out some meaning out of the chaos of his situation: “I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me”. This is what storytelling does; it’s what we do every single day of our lives, whenever we pause and weigh our options, make decisions, and ponder on past successes and mistakes.

What I am reading is an example of one of the most elemental human experiences, and this is why I cannot put it down, though my attention slackens in the second part of the text, when Wilde’s reflections become more abstract and general, coalescing into a defence of romanticism over classicism. I much prefer Wilde who looks back on his personal vicissitudes and wills himself to find value in them, regardless of how his very existence has been derailed by them: “To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul”. Everett’s Wilde is – rightly, in my opinion – parsimonious with aphorisms, with the exception of some old favourites.[3] Recited out loud, the lines above would have been sententious; as they echo silently in my head, they have a gentler ring of truth about them.

Sally Minogue and Stefania Ciocia

[1] Sally tells me that I was having an on the day, responding to the film (un)emotionally rather than intellectually first. She is right about that, but this is a matter for a different kind of blog.

[2] In a text so eloquent about sorrow, Wilde is reticent about one of its manifestations: “Three more months go over and my mother dies. No one knew how deeply I loved and honoured her. Her death was terrible to me; but I, once a lord of language, have no words in which to express my anguish and shame.”

[3] Everett gives us this famous valedictory quip, though not as Wilde’s last words, as they are often apocryphally reported: “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”