Oscar Wilde’s short story is quite a sad tale for children; beautiful but sad.

The movie of the same name, written, directed and starring Rupert Everett is another unhappy tale.

Leading man Everett plays Oscar as somewhat of a ham. Perhaps that is what he sees Oscar had become in this twilight of his life. Everett’s Wilde wears garish makeup, he is a caricature of himself. His dandyish look is old and sad as is Wilde. It is apparent that his best days are behind him.

I found this to be one of the least sympathetic portrayals of the wit that I’ve seen. It focuses on a short period of his life from 1897, and his release from Reading Gaol until his untimely death in 1900.

As part of the British Film Festival (October 23 – to November 14) The Happy Prince has an esteemed British cast which includes Colin Firth as Wilde’s friend Reggie Turner, Emily Watson as his long-suffering wife Constance, and Tom Wilkinson in a precious cameo as the priest who performs his last rites. (In Stephen Fry’s Wilde, Wilkinson appeared as the Marquess of Queensbury, a nice touch).  It is a good story, well told, though not the part often told by biographers. The cast is strong but perhaps Everett could have allowed others to direct his own performance.

Image via BBC Films

Wilde has been the subject of many plays and films – the most recent being Fry’s Wilde. His characterisation for me was as I imagined Wilde. The current film covers a difficult period of his life and provided scant background.

Oscar as the Happy Prince is already a set character on a set trajectory. He is met by his friends Taylor (Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) who support him by finding him lodging in France, where he has been exiled. He has decided he should reconcile with his wife and his sons – Percy and Cyril. However, when his lover Bosie arrives and they meet on a railway platform, he knows he cannot give up the love for which he has already paid such a high price. He has a small allowance from Constance, Bosie has a small allowance from his mother, and they decide to decamp to Italy. When they are discovered to be reconciled both lose their allowances and they have nothing to live on. Bosie is brilliantly cast, Colin Morgan is breathtakingly beautiful, and the love that Wilde had for him is easy to appreciate, because of his stunning looks.

I have always loved Wilde for his wit, talent, and character. This film questions much of what I had thought. His ways are too vain, too self-centred, too lacking in strong character.

However, it’s an interpretation by another fan, Rupert Everett. For him this has been a long-term passion project – he has longed to play him, and write something about him. He has done that now and it’s not bad, though it’s not what I was hoping to see. I think that the act of writing, directing, and starring in a film is perhaps over-involvement and perhaps involves some loss of perspective.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol, one of his best pieces, features in the film as a bit of a leitmotif – we are reminded over and over that he was killed by his incarceration.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves

By all let this be heard

Some do it with a bitter look

Some with a flattering word

The coward does it with a kiss

The brave man with a sword!

He had been “killed” by his lover for the young Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, and yet he kept his faith that it was only love that was worth living for. This is the moral of the story The Happy Prince – there is a statue of the Prince and a swallow who loves the Prince; the eventual realisation is that love is the only thing worth worshipping. For me, the film is redeemed by the focus on Wilde’s relationship with Robbie Ross, his loyal and faithful former lover who had stuck with him, helped with his relationship with his family and was responsible for the resurrection of his image and legacy. This is a story worth sharing.

The Happy Prince will not appeal to everyone. Some may be more satisfied with a copy of The Happy Prince or the Ballad of Reading Gaol where they can focus on his genius and not his downfall.

Feature image via BBC Films.