Rupert Everett turns his fascination with Oscar Wilde, the 19th-century Irish poet and playwright who was persecuted and jailed for “gross indecency with men” (the word homosexual was never uttered), into a film of righteous anger, touching gravity and wicked Wildean wit. Having played the literary lion on stage in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss and characters in film versions of An Ideal Husband (1999) and The Importance of Being Earnest (2002), Everett shows a kinship with the role that goes beyond an openly gay actor playing a gay icon. Any struggles that he shows as a first-time director and screenwriter are eclipsed by his deep connection to his subject. This is award-caliber acting.
The Happy Prince, the title taken from a Wilde childrens’ story about suffering and transcendence, concerns the author’s last days of exile in Europe. Strangers offer kindnesses that help ease the painful rejection of audiences and friends who once adored him. His jail time — two years of hard labor — clearly broke him. Barely getting by on an allowance from his estranged wife, Constance (Emily Watson), who keeps him from his two sons, Wilde compensates by telling his stories to two street urchins, Jean (Benjamin Voisin) and Leon (Matteo Salamone), who barely comprehend the master in their midst.
Oscar spends what money he has on cocaine, alcohol and male companionship. But his body, heavy from excess and exhaustion, weighs him down. Stripped of a worshipful audience and the desire and ability to write again, the Great Man is brought low, though slivers of his sharp humor shine through. Makeup and prosthetics help Everett hide his own slender frame, but there’s no denying that the bon vivant in Wilde reminds us of the British actor’s rakish, light-comic touch in such mainstream hits as My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) with Julia Roberts. It’s pure pleasure to hear him nail the killer fun in a line like “I’m dying beyond my means.” He brings his considerable all to this labor of love, delivering a performance of soaring beauty and terror.
The Happy Prince focuses on Wilde’s unwise reunion with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan), the prettyboy whose father denounced the celebrated author as a sodomite, causing Wilde to bring on a losing charge of libel and his own eventual downfall. There’s also his literary executor and former lover Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), whose jealousy of Bosie is boundless. Steadier, support comes from novelist Reggie Turner, slyly played by The King’s Speech Oscar winner Colin Firth, whose association with Everett goes back to 1984’s Another Country.
The actor-director gives the film all the period trappings a limited budget would allow, with cinematographer John Conroy and designer Brian Morris offering visuals carried aloft by the lushly evocative score of Gabriel Yared. Flashbacks to Wilde’s golden days of being publicly adored while reveling in private orgiastic glory, only highlight the downs of his final years when even the sharpest epigrams can’t save him from crushing loneliness. A sense of injustice runs like a toxic river through Everett’s film, an affront to homophobia through the ages, even our enlightened one. In the end, The Happy Prince makes its strongest mark as a heartfelt salute to Wilde from an actor and filmmaker who was born to play him.