The Unicorn Scale: The Happy Prince

By Jennie Roberson

August 19, 2020

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Photo credit: istock/naypong

Greetings, Unicorns! It’s no secret around here I have an unabating love for queer luminaries of the past. I thought it was high time to focus on one of the greatest wits of the English language— and one of my writing heroes— the inimitable Oscar Wilde.

I thoroughly adore Oscar. So much so that he has popped up in many of my creative works. I love Wilde to the embarrassing quotient of wandering around Dublin for a full afternoon in search of his famous statue— and finally finding it just before dusk.

Worth it. I think we make a cute couple.

So when I was tapping through my Instagram stories a while ago, one of the ads caught my eye: a new take on the last years of Wilde’s life, 2018’s The Happy Prince. I made note of it and am finally getting around to it now. So let’s talk about it together.

Before I delve into the murky headspace of Wilde’s final days, I should warn you there will be SPOILERS. I should also include a warning: (arcane) homophobic language coupled with all-too-timeless bullying. Finally, if this is your first time around these parts, my dear dead husband Oscar and I should remind you that you can learn all about the Unicorn Scale by visiting this link.

What I Liked:

A lot of popular culture likes to remember Wilde had gay exploits, and that’s not wrong. After all, “Earnest” was possibly a queer coding term, and Wilde did end up serving two years in prison with hard labor for “gross indecency” from a public trial discussing his homosexual relationships.

But what history (and films) forget is that Wilde (played indelibly here by Rupert Everett) was also married with two children. Writer/director/actor Everett doesn’t erase this fact in The Happy Prince, and makes it clear that Wilde wants to reconcile with his wife as soon as he gets out of prison. Yes, and he also wants to and starts up a relationship with his doomed lover, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan) again.

Everett strains to show both Wilde’s strong draw to Bosie (“I love him as I always did, with a sense of tragedy and ruin … Going back to Bosie was psychologically inevitable,”) as well as his emotional connection to wife Constance (Emily Watson). While many write off Wilde’s marriage as a beard, Everett makes sure to show true grief at the news of Constance’s death, as well as tenderness at a premonition of her the night before she passes.

What I Didn't Like:

While Everett does take pains to show Wilde’s connection and attraction to Constance Lloyd, as a screenwriter he doesn’t give Watson much to work with, other than react to Wilde’s decline. Constance was not just a put-upon wife; she was an author as well. It would have been revealing to show this facet of her life, rather than just her waiting around and getting more bad news of a misbehaving husband.

Normally this is the juncture where I say I’d like to hear the term “bi” used, but Happy Prince gets a pass since the term was coined only a few years before Wilde’s death. Then again, I don’t know. If Everett found it necessary to add a scuffle at Wilde’s funeral which never actually happened (not to mention a bullying session that ends with grandstanding in a church), maybe he could have found time to throw that word in there. Or flesh out Constance’s character a touch. Just a thought.

I know I work to focus mostly on how these forms of media display representation, but I have to take a moment to warn people— this is a depressing, bleak, slow film. That’s not to say it’s without worth— the cinematography borders on painterly and as both writer and actor, Everett commands a profound understanding of Wilde’s mind and wit. But the indulgent pacing made me want to just pop on Stephen Fry’s Wilde from 1998 instead.

Maybe I’ll do that in a moment, as a treat.

The Rating:

The Happy Prince shoulders the uneasy task of examining the tarnished final moments of one of the most sparkling wits in the English language. And it does so with a fair amount of success. Everett doesn’t shy away from Wilde’s bisexuality, but sometimes his overall vision gets so dreary and muddled it can dull the sparkle. Definitely worth a watch, but don’t expect much more brightness here than in a rhinestone found on the shore, weathered by sand and storm.

That’s the truth— which, of course, is rarely pure and never simple.

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