• AurelienThomas

Poets in the Movies: Oscar Wilde

Updated: Jan 25

Aesthete and dandy famous for his witty plays and one ‘gothic’ novel, Oscar Wilde, it tends to be overlooked, was also a poet. Now, it’s true, apart from the deeply heartfelt ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, I personally don’t like his poetry, too pedantic and pretentiously classic for my liking (a point I argued on Burning Words Poetry). Personal poetic dislike aside, though, it doesn’t mean that the man didn’t have an arresting life, as scandalous as some of his punchier writing. Its tragic ending in Paris, in fact, remains as sad as it was sordid, reflecting how Victorian society could be cruel even to some of its elite’s golden and naughty children. How to tackle such a life?

Well, you could go full grim and gloom, as Rupert Everett has done in ‘The Happy Prince’ (2018). Focusing on the last years of Oscar Wilde, his exile abroad after his release from prison, the director (who also acts as Wilde himself) delivers here a dark, quite depressing, and unsettling movie where a sombre portrayal of the author may even make some viewers, well, cringe!

For example, he gives him a twitch when talking which makes him look like a dark villain; and his behaviour is, at times, nothing short but perverse (e.g. his lust after teenage boys, paid for by his wife’s allowances…). Gloominess asides, ‘The Happy Prince’ does contain a few moving scenes. Oscar Wilde as a destitute father reading one of his tales to two orphans, he who was barred to see his own children, is one of them. The writer being chased down a street by a group of homophobic English men who recognised him, and his remembering of his ordeal when taken to jail, are others.

‘The Happy Prince’ ’s darkness may reflect what a shameful downfall this may have been. Personally, though, its indulgence in the gruesome left me a bit cold. This was too sombre for my liking.

More to my taste, in fact, is ‘Wilde’, directed by Brian Gilbert (1997). Based on ‘Oscar Wilde’, the Pulitzer-Prize winning biography by Richard Ellmann, ‘Wilde’ is, on the contrary, what I found to be a very touching and sensible portrait of a complex man.

The hardworking playwriter is shown here indeed evolving in two different worlds: as a neglectful and cheat husband, although a loving dad, on the one hand (his tale ‘The Selfish Giant’ cleverly serves as a thread to display his relationship with his sons) and the Victorian gay underworld on the other, where he engaged in steamy sex in luxury hotels with rent boys of various classes. The contrast thus put forth sensibly exposes the man in all his shades. It’s also served by a cast of actors who are all, it must be pointed out, absolutely brilliant! Stephen Fry in particular, carrying the title role, is astonishing (many critics, and rightly so, even commented on his lookalike appearance to the author…) as is Jude Law, delivering a no less astounding performance as Lord Alfred Douglas, the capricious lover whose brutish father would trigger Wilde’s ruin.

What I admire in this work, in fact, is how it reflects the difficulties in assessing such a complex character. This is my personal opinion of an individual, but, on the one hand, if I felt sorry for him for being taken advantage of, even abused, by a demanding ‘Bosie’, on the other, though, I also had no sympathy, he who shamelessly neglected his own family to lavish time and money upon his affairs. The contradictions are haunting all throughout, reflecting a depth and an emotional turmoil at the image of the tempestuous and toxic relationship Wilde had with the young Lord Alfred Douglas. The multiple sex scenes may make some of you cringe, but, nevertheless, this is a beautiful movie.

The LGBTQ+ community and its civil rights surely have come a long way since the Victorian era! Nevertheless, these two arresting movies manage to show -each in their own ways- how such homophobic prejudice could destroy even the lives of the privileged and otherwise adulated few. A lesson for acceptance? I will leave it to you. Meanwhile, thank you reading, and, please, don't hesitate to subscribe to never miss a post!

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