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The Happy Prince, Germany, Belgium, Britain 2018

Posted by keith1942 on August 20, 2018

This is the new film about Oscar Wilde, titled from his famous short story. Oscar Wilde’s rise and fall is one of the most well-known and dramatic careers in C19th Britain. A popular writer and journalist, a successful playwright, raconteur and epigrammatist, the revelation of his homosexuality, the repressed and noir looking underground of Victorian society, led to disaster and early death. There have been numerous books about Wilde, and quite a few theatrical plays and television features and programmes. And there have been four English language features films, and French and German features, plus several documentarians. And his plays and his one novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’, have a number of film adaptations.

There is much material for the films. Apart from biographies and treatments in other media, memoirs of Wilde abound. There is his own ‘De Profundis’, though this and the recollections of people who knew him are not always reliable. And the famous trials were recorded in detail and all these film versions utilise the more notable contributions by Wilde. ‘The love that dare not speak its name’ [from an essay] has become a well used phrase in English.

Oscar Wilde (1960) was produced by Vantage Films and distributed by C20th Fox. It garnered an ‘X’ certificate from the British Board of Film Censors, a classification that seems bizarre fifty years on. It was shot in black and white and in the Academy ratio, quite a late example of the use of this ratio. The director was Gregory Ratoff, a Russian émigré who moved first to Paris and then Hollywood. The script was by Jo Eisinger and based on a play that included reminiscences by Wilde’s friend Frank Harris. Eisinger had earlier scripted the notable 1950 Night and the City.

The key members of the cast were Robert Morley as Oscar Wilde; Phyllis Calvert as his wife Constance; and John Neville as Lord Alfred Douglas,[Bosie], Wilde’s lover and the cause of his downfall. Morley is fine presenting Wilde as society wit and epigrammatist; the sexual side is much weaker. But the film itself is weak on this; apparently a scene involving Wilde soliciting a ‘rent boy’ was cut. Neville as Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) does not generate enough charm to justify the obsession that Wilde developed for him. Calvert’s Constance is under-written and her casting presumably followed from earlier roles where she was a put-upon wife, such as They Were Sisters (1945).

The film opens and closes ion Wilde’s grave in Paris at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. It then revisits Wilde’s infatuation and introduces his nemesis, Bosie ‘s father, The Marquis of Queensbury [spellings vary], played by Edmunds Chapman who never exhibits the manic qualities ascribed to the character. What stands out is the trial and the now famous cross-examination by Sir Edward Carson (Ralph Richardson). Richardson plays the character as steely and pitiless. The film also uses the trial transcripts and offers the fullest dramatisation of the court hearing. Following the trial we briefly see Wilde’s incarceration and then his decline in Paris.

The Monthly Film Bulletin (July 1960]] notes the circumstances of the film’s release.

“The film, by five days, of two neck and neck versions of the Wilde story to reach the screen, Oscar Wilde was still being edited up to a couple of hours before the press show. “

This partly accounts for the lack of life in the film and in the portrayals. Possibly responding to Richardson’s careful demolition Morley does give eloquence to the passage of the ‘Love that dare not speak its name’.

The competing version was The Trials of Oscar Wilde, with executive producers Irving Allan and Albert R. Broccoli. This film also received an ‘X’ certificate, with slightly more justification. The film was both scripted and directed by Ken Hughes,; he went on to direct the fine film version of Oliver Cromwell (1970). The film was based on a novel of the same name by Montgomery Hyde and a theatrical adaptation by John Furnell, ‘The Stringed Lute’. The film was shot in Technirama 70, with fine Technicolor and a ratio of 2.20:1 in the 70mm prints, [2.35:1 in the 35mm prints]. The film had a talented production crew, Ted Moore providing the cinematography : he worked on several Bond films. As also did the designer [along with Bill Constable] Ken Adams. And Ron Goodwin provided the music. The film looks and sounds much better than its rival.

The plot begins at the same point as Oscar Wilde, the opening of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. However the film fills in the preceding relationship between Wilde and ‘Bosie’. In fact the film portrays this relationship in much greater depth. One gets a sense of the involvement between the two men and their other relationships, wife and father. John Fraser is good as lord Douglas whilst Lionel Jefferies is excellent as the mad, manic and macho Marquis of Queensbury. Yvonne Mitchell plays Wilde’s wife Constance but the part is again underwritten. We meet their children briefly and at one point hear Oscar telling ‘The Happy Prince’ [incomplete]. At the centre of the film is Peter Finch’s portrayal of Wilde. He does not really catch the writer or the notorious public figure but invests great skill in his obsession with ‘Bosie’ and in the way his life collapses.

Given the title of the film the treatment of the criminal libel case is underdeveloped; ‘trials’ in the sense of the personal. James Mason is not as ruthless as the Richardson portrayal. The film does deal with the two subsequent prosecutions, one ending in a dead-locked jury the other in Wilde’s draconian and moralistic punishment. The film ends with Wilde’s release and does not follow him in his exile in Paris. The last shot is as he leaves London by train. This common trope offers the sight of Wilde spurning ‘Bosie’ as his train departs.

This is a pretty good portrait of Wilde but its primary concern is the in famous relationship and his personal suffering. London and theatre-land of the period is well drawn but seems slightly external to the characters. The powerful scenes are those where Wilde’s obsession increases at the same time as Bosie’s demands increasingly sap his artistry and his social position.

Thirty seven years on and with social attitudes to sexual orientation much changed came Wilde (1997). This biopic was produced in a period when films openly and explicitly addressing gay love were frequent. The film was credited as British and to three other territories; there are a number of production companies, including monies from British and European state agencies. The screenplay is by Julian Mitchell from the book ‘Oscar Wilde’ by Richard Ellmann. It is filmed in anamorphic 2.35:1 and in full Metrocolor. Martin Fuhrer cinematography makes good use of the production design by Maria Djurkovic and very fine costumes by Nic Ede. Oscar Wilde is played in the film by Christopher Fry whose personal and sexual orientation are closer to the subject than that of the earlier actors. He does capture the flamboyance of Wilde’s public image and [to a degree] the contradictory nature of his desires and attractions. The film sets this up in an inspired opening sequence. Prior to marriage the young Wilde, already a noted social figure, visits and entertains miners as he makes a trip to the USA and ‘out west’. This nicely sets up the public figure of Wilde and his ambiguous standing.

The film gives us Wilde’s married life and his two children. Jennifer Ehle has a better written part than her predecessors and offers more rounded portrait of the character. Michael Sheen plays Robert Ross, who both introduces Wilde to the pleasures of homosexuality and also remains a steadfast friend through the travails that will follow. But the film’s prime interest is in Wilde’s sexuality and his obsession with Lord Alfred Douglas, (Jude Law). Their sequences are the most extended in the film and the two actors give full rein to the obsession on one side and the self-centred conduct on the other. Some of the scenes, like Wilde’s sojourn in Brighton whilst ill, cross over with the earlier Trials. But this representation is more powerful and complex, thanks in part to the greater latitude allowed the subject in this period. Tom Wilkinson, as the Marquess of Queensbury, is good and allowed a more complex characterisation than the earlier films.

The film was classified ’15’, how times changed. And it contains a certain amount of explicit sexual conduct. However, I do not think there is any frontal nudity, and the film successfully avoided the ’18’ classification in Britain. The film does show us both Wilde and Bosie’s sexual relationship and their indulgence in what then [as more recently] were described as ‘rent boys’. But that focus takes the film away from the most famous aspect of the story, the notorious trials. The treatment of the libel case is fairly perfunctory in relation to the earlier versions. And the two cases of prosecution are past over.

There are some grim sequences of Wilde’s prison term. And we follow him to exile in France. However, the film ends when he and Bosie re-unite, [though in actuality this was a brief reunion].

The film, as in earlier versions, uses much of the recorded dialogue. Some of the stormier scenes are taken from the account Wilde himself gave in ‘De Profundis’. And there are a number of scenes where we hear Wilde’s famous short story, ‘The Selfish Giant’; suggesting a critical line in the narrative,.

Now, twenty years later, we have a new version of Oscar Wilde. ‘A passion project’ for writer and director Rupert Everett. Apparently it took Everett five years to bring the project to completion. It is credited to Belgium, Italy and Britain; the list of Production Companies runs to two columns in S&S, the main sources being the BBC, Tele München and Télevision belge. The film was shot digitally and in colour and 2.35:1. The main location for the project was Bavaria, with other sites in Belgium, France and Italy. The cinematography by John Conroy looks good as does the production design by Brian Morris. Both interiors and exteriors are convincing and full of interest. The locations partly reflect the film’s focus, the last years of Wilde’s life following his imprisonment and exile. The title of the film is taken from the famous short story by Oscar Wilde, which also figured briefly in the earlier Trials. But here the story becomes a metaphor for the downward spiral of Wilde’s life. The last line of that story suggests the posthumous upward spiral of his work and reputation.

The film opens in 1900 with Wilde already in exile. His life there is intercut with flashbacks to the earlier parts of the story. In a couple of places we get a montage of clips summoning up the past but also highlighting the parallels and oppositions in his career. In an early sequence he entertains a crowd in a low Paris bar with a rendition of a music hall favourite, he collapses and this is followed by a montage of clips including his sentencing for ‘immorality’, the vindictive Marquess of Queensbury and the deeply depressing Reading Gaol. In another sequence, that also appeared in Wilde, we see Oscar pursued by homophobic young Englishness in a Normandy town. There follows a montage of clips that present the opposition and parallels in Wilde life, including a grim sequence as he was baited on his way to prison counterposed with his triumph at the opening night of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. Right through the film Everett and his team counterpose the life in exile with memories and returns to both Wilde success and fame and his degradation after his fall. Nicolas Gaster editing is to be commended.

Everett’s Wilde dominates the film. Philip Kemp notes that

Rupert Everett, in his magisterial role as writer, director and star, catches the theatricality self-mocking aspect of the flamboyant littérateur almost from the start.” (Sight & Sound July 2018).

Everett also catches the rumbustious vitality which enabled Wilde to entertain people across the Victorian divide, from bourgeois to proletarians. This also brings out his sympathy, [though not very analytical] for the exploited and oppressed.

Everett dominates the screen so that other characters are not that fully developed. Both Edwin Thomas) Robbie Ross) and Colin Morgan (Lord Alfred Douglas are excellent as Oscar’s lovers. Emily Watson is fine but gets only limited screen time. The rest of the cast are those who Wilde encounters in exile with a key British character, like the Marquess of Queensbury’ seen only briefly and not credited.

The film offers a valedictory portrait of the artist, with all his flaws and vices. It also give insight into this destructive urges which explain how his great success was followed by such a precipitous fall. And it addresses directly and fully his homosexual activities. The BBFC gave the film a ’15’ certificate noting that

very strong language, strong nudity, drug misuse”.

We see Oscar recounting ‘The Happy Prince’ to two young French urchins, one of who he pays for sex. And in another fine transition we cut to the earlier Wilde recounting that story to his two sons. I think this story makes a better metaphor for Wilde himself that that of ‘The Selfish Giant’ used in Wilde. Everett subtly changes some of the tale to suit the film. Thus the ‘young man in as garret’ becomes

a broken man … He was a writer, but he was too cold to finish his play”.

Here the sentimentality in some of Wilde’s work, though not his famous plays, comes to the fore. And the part of the story [featured elsewhere in the film] where the Mayor decrees the fate of the statue of the ‘Happy Prince,’ cast aside and melted down, draws Wilde’s moral with emphasis to his own fate at the hands of the moralistic Victorian society.

The film has its flaws and the occasional longueur. But Everett’s characterisation, the vivid portrayal of Wilde’s treatment, and the moral valuation offered by the film, make this my favourite of the film adaptations. Given Wilde’s place in the Pantheon, the richness of his artistic work, and the key place he occupies in the history of ‘coming out’, I am sure that we will see more films on this subject in the future.

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