“Be yourself, everybody else is taken.” said a proudly defiant Oscar Wilde, whilst living in a society shrouded in censorship and discrimination. BFI Flare: London’s LGBTQ+ Film Festival is celebrating the sentiment expressed by this inspiring quote in London’s Southbank for the 32nd year running.
As a self confessed arty film buff, I’ve always been a fan of this critically acclaimed yearly festival, which showcases over 50 features, more than 90 shorts and a plethora of special events, guest appearances, discussions, workshops and club nights.
I was intrigued at how LGBTQ cinema had evolved over the years and how the BFI perceives rapidly evolving expressions of sexual identity within modern culture. Tricia Tuttle, Artistic Director of BFI Festivals explains, “Queer cinema has never offered more richly complex and diverse characters and stories than we have seen in the last few years and that shines through in the quality of festival that the programme team have put together. This diversity has also inspired us to update our festival name to BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival. That Q+ reflects shifts in cultural conversations around identity, but also the Festival’s own ethos as welcoming and inclusive.”
Last night, I was lucky enough to have watched the UK premiere of The Happy Prince, a moving portrayal of the final tumultuous years of the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde’s life – written by, directed by and staring the inimitable Rupert Everett.
Everett fought for ten long years to secure funding for the creation of this insightful film – even playing the eccentric part of the literary genius himself on stage in a theatrical rendition of his life – The Judas Kiss, with the aim of igniting interest from potential investors.
Unlike previous cinematic depictions of Oscar Wilde’s life made in the 50’s, 70’s and 1990’s, The Happy Prince tells the not so happy story of the dismal final years of the writer’s life in exile after a soul-destroying prison sentence for “Gross Indecency” – a result of the conflict with his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde’s indiscreet affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas enraged the marquess, who accused Wilde of “posing as a sodomite.” Wilde retaliated by accusing him of libel, which led to his degrading detention at his majesty’s pleasure – and eventually his disgraced demise amidst the poverty-stricken streets of Naples and Paris.
A fat suit-donning and heavily made up Everett plays his dream part of the hallowed yet courageous character of Wilde to perfection, imagining him as a tragically poignant, “Jesus-like figure” – his own words spoken at the post-screening Q&A.
A scene from the film depicts an emotionally ravaged Wilde verbally attacked and spat on by rowdy expatriate Brits who recognise him in France, despite his fragile pseudonym, Sebastien Melmouth. They chase him down the streets into a church where his fighting spirit re-emerges as he roars, “The natural habitat of the hypocrite is England! Go there and leave me in peace!” Of course, 19th century British society was always more forgiving of secret homosexual relations, whereas publicly rebellious “rogues” such as Wilde were doomed to a disgraceful fall from grandeur and unyielding public condemnation.
Wilde’s pleasure-seeking ways are brazenly depicted by Everett, who wanted the audience to delve deep into the mind of this broken yet passionate figure – a hopeless romantic and philandering socialite who believed that love was the only thing worth fighting for. This is excellently portrayed in scenes of champagne swigging, emotional reunions with his fast-living ex lover, partially nude “gentlemen’s” parties and scandalous extra-nocurnual activities with dashing young rent boys.
It is with the younger brother of one of these “young men of the night” that Wilde reveals his softer side, reciting his fairytale of The Happy Prince – a bedtime tale he used to read to his two young boys during his golden years at the comforting bosom of high society.
Everett’s own story of an unhappy prince who was denied the right to be himself and punished for how and who he chose to love is a true masterpiece of queer cinema. A raw exploration of inner strength, courage and desire, The Happy Prince boldly emphasises the importance of self-authenticity and the right to simply love, because as Wilde once said, “A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.”
BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival runs until the 1st April.