The story of Oscar Wilde is one of the great tragedies of the Victorian age. He was homosexual (a word never actually uttered in this film, though we hear of “The love that dare not speak its name”) though able to function as a straight man, fathering two sons. He was the greatest wit of the times, endlessly quotable today. He wrote short fiction, the best known being The Picture of Dorian Gray. He wrote five plays, including one of the funniest comedies ever, The Importance of Being Earnest. I’ve seen three or four films of it, and it always delights me.
But homosexuality was a crime in England. He got involved with a childish and dissolute young fop of the nobility, Lord Alfred Douglas (known as Bosie), the son of the son of a bitch John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry. #9 couldn’t stand the scandal of his son and Wilde cavorting around (foolishly) in public, and accused Wilde of being a sodomite. Poor Bosie urged Wilde to sue for libel (or at least that’s how it is portrayed in the movie), a disastrous mistake, because he was eviscerated in court, lost the case, and had to pay #9’s legal expenses, which left him bankrupt.
Even worse, the verdict left him open to a charge of public indecency, which was brought, and of which he was found guilty. The judge: “This is the worst case I have ever tried.” Two years was “totally inadequate for a case such as this.” Wilde was shipped off for hard labor, which soon destroyed his health. He was bounced around between several prisons. At the last one he wrote his last important work, “The Balled of Reading Gaol.” He was released after the full two years, a broken man. He went to France and died soon after, aged forty-four.
This is all portrayed superbly in this black and white film. (Oddly, another film about Wilde, a Technicolor production with a much larger budget, was released in the same month! I haven’t seen it.) I’ve always enjoyed Robert Morley, but always in supporting roles. I can’t think of another film where he was the lead. He makes the most of this opportunity, really chewing up the role in a delightful way. Sir Ralph Richardson plays the prosecutor at the libel trial, and it is deeply sad and moving to see him chisel away at Wilde until there is nothing left of the man.