The title is ironic. The Happy Prince, a story written for children by Oscar Wilde in 1888, is a gentle parable of love, heartbreak, sacrifice and redemption. And now, actor-turned-filmmaker Rupert Everett borrows the title for his melancholy, wistful, and yet utterly engrossing portrait of Wilde in his troubled final days. Everett wrote and directed the movie, in which he also stars as Wilde.
Once the toast of London, with three smash plays running simultaneously in the West End, and famous for his highly quotable wit, Wilde destroyed himself with an indiscreet affair with beautiful, feckless young Lord Alfred Douglas, whose powerful father had Wilde sent to prison for the crime of sodomy, and put to hard labor for two years. This past is prologue in Everett’s film, which finds the mostly impoverished Wilde in exile on the Continent trying to piece together life after prison. It’s a remarkable portrait of ruined nobility, disturbing in its intensity as it digs beneath both the surface glitz of Wilde’s fizzy celebrity as a dramatist, and his blackened reputation as an infamous sodomite, to explore the complex personality within.
Everett brackets the film with Wilde reading aloud his story of The Happy Prince, first to his own two sons at bedtime, and later to a pair of urchins he consorts with in the Paris garret where he spends his last days—salting in themes of love, beauty, and tragedy throughout the movie. Usually short on cash, Wilde is adept at trading cocaine or sheer bonhomie for what he desires; in one rollicking scene, he climbs to a tabletop and sings a ribald music hall ditty to settle a situation in a bar.
He’s abetted in his post-prison escapades by longtime cohort Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). (Ten points to Gryffindor if you remember Firth and Everett as the louche young Cambridge spies-to-be in Another Country, millennia ago.) Wilde’s loyal literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) joins them for a while, hoping to save his beloved Oscar from himself. And Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas himself (the always persuasive Colin Morgan) shows up to spirit Oscar off on an illicit sojourn to Naples—until Bosie’s mother and Oscar’s long-suffering wife (Emily Watson) cut off their respective allowances.
Everett has a lovely eye for atmosphere. His grimy French bistros look like Toulouse-Lautrec paintings come alive. A long shot of ladies and gentlemen in straw hats dining al fresco on a sunny patio in Naples could be a Renoir.
As an openly gay actor who was tired of being offered stereotypical parts (especially after he was such a scene-stealing hit in My Best Friend’s Wedding), Everett has said he wanted to honor Wilde as an icon of gay identity who had everything to lose, yet stayed true to himself. It’s not a portrait of bravery. Everett’s Wilde confesses himself addicted to “vice and pleasure,” and his fatal attraction to doom, yet is unable to regret any of it. In Everett’s view, Wilde’s own hubris also contributed to his fall, believing that his fame and wit and social connections would protect him.
Of course, the film also condemns bigotry and oppression in Wilde’s era. A fascinating footnote tells us that Wilde and hundreds of others convicted of “crimes” of sodomy were officially pardoned by the Crown—but not until 2017!
Everett’s towering performance as Wilde is mesmerizing. Often shot in extreme close-up, we see every millimeter of his dissipation, but also every glimmer of stubborn, ironic wit (“I’m dying beyond my means!”) and hopeful joy as he seizes any chance for momentary balm, after losing his family, his honor and his livelihood. Wilde may be downtrodden, but Everett’s close study of the author’s will to live even his marginalized and chaotic life on his own terms is deeply insightful.
THE HAPPY PRINCE
*** 1/2 (out of four)
With Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Colin Morgan, and Emily Watson. Written and directed by Rupert Everett. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 105 minutes.