Thursday 11 October 2018

On DVD: "The Happy Prince"

If I remember correctly, Brian Gilbert's very handsome, BBC-backed 1997 biopic of Oscar Wilde - the one with Stephen Fry in the lead role - drew a discreet veil over the writer and wit's final years in exile, preferring instead to enshrine Wilde in his tragic, martyred prime. Twenty years on, and hopefully we're all a little more grown-up around the idea of how a gay man might choose to spend his days and nights: Wilde was one of 20,000 men granted a posthumous pardon by the British Government in 2017 for offences that no longer exist in law, and which should never have been offences in the first place. Rupert Everett, who writes, directs and stars in The Happy Prince, has no such qualms about diving into the gutter in which Oscar found himself in later life, perhaps because - at this stage of his zigzagging, pinballing acting career - he too has nothing much left to lose. The thesis of Everett's film - which joins Wilde in a state of impoverished dishevelment amid the cabarets of late 19th century Europe, where he sought sanctuary after serving his prison sentence - is that right until the last, there was life in this old dog, as well as a desire to make peace with his demons.

So: where Gilbert's Wilde took the classical, Great Man of History line, Everett's unruly younger sibling concerns itself with a notable storyteller in search of a worthy ending for his own tale. Yet while it honours Wilde's spell in exile, The Happy Prince is itself having to make peace with its subject's past, or at least with what the movies have already told us. Clearly, Everett doesn't want to retread that ground Gilbert and Fry so amply covered, but his film's unusual shape suggests he must have had to sit impatiently through a number of production meetings where executives urged him to get some of that history in nevertheless. Everett's solution involves adopting a more than faintly Proustian structure whereby a line of dialogue will cue a flashback or cutaway to action unfolding simultaneously elsewhere within Wilde's circumscribed universe. The result is a rogue's gallery of odd, sometimes free-floating scenes that, taken collectively, do somehow paint a picture of a life lived in limbo. Old friends - friends of Oscar, friends of Rupert - come and go: Anna Chancellor as a society matron, Colin Firth as Wilde's loyal confidant Reggie Turner, Béatrice Dalle in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as a cafe proprietor. When Emily Watson pops up over the Channel in a couple of scenes as Wilde's wife Constance, the expectation is that there will eventually be some kind of reunion, but the film never heads in this direction.

There may, I think, be something truthful in this approach. We mean for our lives to have unity and purpose, but we drift out of others' lives as they drift out of ours; we strive for meaning, and often wind up with no more than handfuls of madeleines and missed opportunities. The trick to living - for Wilde, for Everett, perhaps for you and I - is how we come to terms with that fact. Holding it all together is Everett himself, sporting latex jowls that bring him physically closer to where Fry signed off. Impossible to imagine Everett the director considered any other performer for the part: he tears through each scene, scattering epithets in English and French, bellowing at the heavens, and seducing the serving staff; it's fun to behold, but not subtle, and you sense Wilde's humility and gentle grace getting rather crushed beneath the wheels of a galumphing star vehicle. As a film, The Happy Prince is as eccentric and cockeyed as every other credit on its prime mover's CV, but it grabs a certain poetry in passing, and - thanks to Irish cinematographer John Conroy - a muted, faded beauty commensurate with its subject and star. Does it finally come up with an epitaph worthy of Wilde? Not exactly: its incoherence is such that this is one of the rare recent British period dramas where you'd advise everyone to only drink more tea, rather than soaking up the fumes coming off the onset absinthe. But it sure is lively.

The Happy Prince is available on DVD through Lionsgate from Monday.

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