The Happy Prince is a British biographical drama film about Oscar Wilde written and directed by Rupert Everett, who also stars as Wilde. Here, he talks exclusively to Boyz film writer Jack Cline about the film, which is out next Friday (15 Jun).
In a way, Rupert Everett has been working on his new movie, The Happy Prince, since he was five years old, because that’s the age he was when his mother first read the Oscar Wilde story to him, and he fell in love with it. But it was only 10 years ago that the Everett, who is now 58, started the script for this bracingly original biopic, tracing the iconic author’s exile in France and Italy after two years imprisonment for homosexuality.
It’s not the most obvious period for a movie, because it basically traces his loss of status, family, wealth and health. Wilde died in 1900 Paris at age 46. “Basically it’s a two-week story,” Everett says, in an exclusive chat with Boyz, “because it’s really about a man who goes out one night and scores five quid, gets onto a table, falls down and dies. That’s the story. And everything else is how that brain kind of sorts out the past as he’s dying. I always find death beds very romantic.”
Using flashbacks, the film spirals through the previous three years, allowing Everett to inject plenty of Wilde’s lively wit, which was with him right to the end. “I loved calling the film The Happy Prince because, in a certain respect, yes, of course he was depressed and tragic and had huge wafts of misery, but at the same time he was in many ways a clown,” Everett says. “If he saw you could maybe give him a drink, he’d get on with charming you. Obviously, homosexuality in the context you and I know is completely different to how he experienced it. Oscar Wilde was incredibly rarified, but he wasn’t a snob. He was equally fascinated and thoughtful and empathetic towards somebody he was having sex with. So hustling for him was a kind of two-way thing: he was hustling and he was being hustled.”
The film evokes all kinds of resonance in gay culture, which is appropriate because Wilde was one of the first public figures to bring homosexuality into the open. So it’s no wonder that Everett sees echoes of Wilde’s life through a century of history, from the recently told story of Alan Turing to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. “Wilde’s story is like a fable or fairy story,” Everett says. “It has a resonance to all of us who are gay or lesbian or transsexual, because no matter how comfortable most of our lives may be in the 21st century in the West, everybody has a moment where they brushed in an abrasive way against the structure of society. Everybody! The most comfortable queen has had an experience. Maybe not Oscar Wilde’s experience, but at the same time Wilde’s experience, if you think about it, is only halfway. Because in a place like Syria people are being chucked off buildings. Or Russia, India, Jamaica or even look at Belfast! To me Wilde’s story feels very present day, because his relationship to these issues was so ripe.”
Everett deliberately refuses to preach a message in the film; he’s just telling a story. But he believes that the time is right for a movie like this, because people are becoming less aware of the importance of standing up against the status quo. “The revolution that came from 1968 onwards has kind of disappeared really,” he says, “and we’re entering a new puritan world. The younger generation are like our parents’ generation: you’ve got to watch what you’re saying to them in case they get upset. The world I grew up in is considered much too rough and ready in terms of behaviour and manners and general interaction than the world people want now. So I think there’s value and there’s more to be said from history. I think it’s as dramatic as the elves at the end of Lord of the Rings, frankly. All those addenda as they all have to leave Middle Earth and only one remained, one fairy! Maybe I’ve got a role like that.”
The Happy Prince opens in UK cinemas on Friday 15 June.
The Happy Prince – Review by Jack Cline
* * * *
Rupert Everett’s dramatisation of the final tragic years of Oscar Wilde’s life may be grim, but it’s also infused with the great writer’s wit as it spins around to tell a fractured story of artistic creation, friendship and loyalty, all based on a man who could be considered the first gay activist. The title refers to a fairy tale Wilde wrote about a bird and a statue that undermine a corrupt government, and the story is packed with present day resonance that makes it powerfully moving.
It’s also clearly Everett’s passion project, beautifully shot in amazing locations, with terrific performances from Everett as Wilde, of course, plus Colin Firth, Colin Morgan, Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson. It’s the kind of rich, complex film that sticks in the memory, and its impact grows on you, tapping into so many deep themes that it can’t help but evoke a deep emotional response. Don’t miss it on the big screen. JC