What Rupert Everett’s film on Oscar Wilde tells us
Rupert Everett’s film on the last years of Oscar Wilde is both a beautiful and a tragic illustration of how hubris led to the painful and pitiful end of the once witty and refined playwright. Called ‘The Happy Prince’, it’s about how his irresistible demons lure Wilde into a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, fully aware that he’s hurtling towards disaster but unable to desist.columns Updated: Jun 23, 2018 16:37 IST
The cause of the tragedies that befall us are often our own actions. And what makes it worse is when they are foolish but wilful. There are even times when you half know you’re inviting, even provoking, trouble but can’t control yourself. It’s as if a fate or force greater than yourself is irresistibly propelling you. It cannot be stopped or resisted.
In classic Greek tragedy this is called hubris. At times it’s akin to extreme over-confidence or arrogance. You think you’re the master only to discover you are, in fact, being driven like a slave. King Lear is the obvious example. But it can also be an act of defiance of the gods; man believing he has powers above and beyond his human limitations. Icarus comes immediately to mind.
Rupert Everett’s film on the last years of Oscar Wilde is both a beautiful and a tragic illustration of how hubris led to the painful and pitiful end of the once witty and refined playwright. Called ‘The Happy Prince’, it’s about how his irresistible demons lure Wilde into a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, fully aware that he’s hurtling towards disaster but unable to desist.
The saddest part is that infamy and two years of hard labour have not changed him. This movie begins at the point most others about Wilde tend to end. Released from Reading jail, his self-awareness immortalised by the ballad of that name, the ageing, ailing Oscar still cannot resist the temptations that have already devastated his career. He knows if he allows Bosie, his paramour, back into his life, Constance, his wife, will cut off his allowance, condemning him to poverty and misery. But he cannot help himself. Even when he has no money, his extravagance is unchecked. Debts pile up but he’s not just uncaring, he’s oblivious of them. And so, step by step, the devil is calling him home.
The story it tells is a tragedy but this is, nevertheless, a beautiful film. And that’s because it is a truthful film. Its unalloyed and undisguised telling of the terrible truth of Wilde’s end is beautiful because it reveals the terrifying power of human nature. Man is a mere creature of forces he cannot resist or deny. Wilde becomes the plaything of his own desires and dreams. The controls are not in his hands.
There is no clear and obvious God in Wilde’s last years. There are only his demons and their irresistible power. And they are the cause of his progressive self-destruction. What you witness is not just an ending. It’s a pitiless unravelling. A death that is akin to suicide. Of course it’s terrible but it’s also beautiful because you know it’s true. Not the colourful beauty of life but the dark yet haunting beauty of the bitter end.
It reminds me of the closing lines of Keat’s ode ‘On a Grecian Urn’ – “Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know”. In 11 months those words will be 200 years old. On November 30, Wilde will have been dead 118 years. Yet Rupert Everett’s film ensures that both the truth of Keat’s poetry and the harrowing lessons of Wilde’s life can still send shivers down our spine. The world may keep changing but the emotions that drive us always stay the same. And man can be the master but also a simple unresisting messenger.
The views expressed are personal
First Published: Jun 23, 2018 16:37 IST