"I am my own Judas." So declares Oscar Wilde, in a scene from the incredibly beautiful but tragic film, The Happy Prince. The film, directed, starring and from a screenplay written by Rupert Everett, follows Wilde into his exile after his release from Reading gaol, where he served two years with hard labour for "Gross Indecency. Everett's Wilde is a broken man, ostracized by friends and from society he makes his way to France to find respite from the vitriol and the scrutiny.
It's a sad, sad tale, interrupted by moments of desperation as Wilde attempts to make his exile work. But the man, at least in the film, is presented as something of his own worst enemy-hence the 'Judas' declaration. His love for "Bosie," the son of the Marquess of Queensbury, destroys even his post-prison life. Cut-off from a small income from his wife's family because he re-ignites his relationship, he soon finds himself, penniless and alone, a long way from the dizzy heights of his pre-prison fame.
There are flashbacks and moments of reflection about his former life and family, but essentially this film lives inside Wilde's head as he falls deeper and deeper into decline. As I said, it is a tragic tale, and Everett's Wilde is played, as film writer Peter Bradshaw so beautifully notes, as broken yet poignant in his ruined magnificence. In The Happy Prince, we meet a shell of a man, still desperate for fame and acknowledgement, still prone to the same larger-than-life, and potentially destructive, actions that got him into trouble in the first place.
A couple of months back I gave a talk about self-betrayal, and the need at times to enact self-betrayal, when we need to be true to ourselves. Wilde's self-betrayal is another kind, it is self-destruction, something I am sure most of us are familiar with. Wilde's self-destruction was grand and very public, his post-prison life reveals that in spite of the awareness of his own folly that he gained whilst in prison, he is still capable of similar actions. Everett pulls no punches with his portrayal of Everett, this is no hagiography, he gives us Wilde at his lowest. But we are also made aware of the terrible and unnecessary brutality of his punishment. Wilde's crime was to publicly display his homosexual relationships, and particularly the one with the son of a member of the aristocracy. As the film notes at the end, 75,000 men were eventually posthumously pardoned for their crime, all those lives ruined for the 'crime' of homosexuality, tragic indeed.
A second quote from the film is also both theological and heart-breaking. As Wilde lays dying his last two companions send for a priest to administer last rites and offer extreme unction. The priest asks Wilde when it was that he lost his way, when he 'departed from Christ?' Barely conscious Wilde opens his eyes and says, "Clapham Junction." Clapham Junction was the railway station where Wilde, who had been sentenced for his crimes, was forced to sit in public, head shaven, shackled to a guard and clothed in prison garb waiting to be transferred to prison in Reading . As public awareness grew that Wilde was the prisoner on the platform, a hostile crowd gathered round him. For half an hour he was forced to sit through public ridicule and verbal abuse as well as being spat upon by a number of members of the public. This was the place where Wilde declared he lost his way, where he lost god if you will, and it came at the hands of people who added to his punishment by heaping scorn and abuse upon him. It was indictment of humanity, a telling reminder to all of us that we can so easily be emissaries for evil and not for good. Wilde was already humiliated and about to embark on a prison sentence that would ultimately destroy him physically and gut him emotionally. In a very Christic way, Everett captures the essence of how man's inhumanity can do immense damage to a person's life. We forget so easily that we are all broken, that we all can perform acts of folly, that we can all be our own Judas.
The Happy Prince was a children's story that Wilde wrote and the film is wrapped around that story which only adds to the pathos in front of our eyes. This is not a film to see if you are not in a good headspace, a mistake that I made, but it is a film that should be seen, a triumph for Rupert Everett, but more than that a very real glimpse into the abyss of another person's brokenness. In this age of blockbuster comic book movies and re-make after re-make of movies that weren't so great the first time around, it's good to sit in the dark of a movie theatre and come face to face with oneself and each other in our full humanity.