When most of us think of the great Irish wit Oscar Wilde, we tend to think of such timeless literary classics as The Importance of Being Earnest or of the peacocking, paisley-clad dandy who dispensed perfectly crafted bon mots like verbal pearls. But that Wilde is just a distant, faded memory in Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince – a melancholy biopic of the playwright’s sad and tragic final years after he was released from prison for his homosexuality.
Opening in 1897, as Wilde is sprung from two years of hard labor and solitary confinement for “gross indecency”, the film is, as incongruous as it may sound, a delightful downer. It’s also an admirable passion project of its writer, director, and star, Everett. When a generation of moviegoers first laid eyes on the actor in 1984’s Cambridge spy drama, Another Country, Everett was a breathtaking sight to behold – an impossibly hypnotic screen presence who oozed continental sophistication, sexily tousled mystery, and Grecian urn good looks. He was worldly and jaded – the keeper of some sort of delicious secret he’d never share and we’d never know.
But as the defeated, latter-day Wilde in The Happy Prince, he’s allowed himself to go to seed – a prisoner of his own debauchery and excess. The sparkling, Wildean wit is still there, but it contains sadness and unspeakable sorrow. With his time served, Wilde exiles himself to France and then Italy under an assumed name to avoid further scandal. He’s no longer able to write much of anything – and doesn’t even seem to want to try – but his taste for the high life still lives on, even if he can no longer afford it. He gets by largely on the kindness of strangers in the face of the era’s hypocrisies.
Everett, the director, flashes back and forth in time showing us the sharp contrast between being the toast of Soho and the fallen, bloated man he’s become. And his few remaining friends (Colin Firth, Edwin Thomas, and Colin Morgan as his selfish on again-off again lover Bosie) both enable and pity him as his sweet tooth for young flesh and drugs remains unabated. They’re all trying to squeeze the last drops out of a lemon that’s lost its citrus sting.
Still, Everett’s utterly fantastic performance as Wilde slightly exceeds his grasp as a first-time filmmaker. He leans too hard on sentimentality and has come up with a structure that skips around too much. It’s possible to see the flaws in The Happy Prince and still be deeply moved by Everett’s immersive, full-bodied portrayal of the writer. He’s clearly given his all to his first trip behind the camera, and it’s a warmly sympathetic and occasionally heartbreaking reminder of what a remarkably gifted actor he’s capable of being. B