Starring Rupert Everett. In English, French, and Italian, with English subtitles. Rated PG
Rupert Everett’s stunning lead performance, as Oscar Wilde in steep decline, doesn’t receive the full support of his writer and director. But what can you do when all three floppy hats are worn by the same person? Named after Wilde’s children’s tale uniting the episodic plot threads here, The Happy Prince is an obvious labour of love for Everett. But, as Wilde famously wrote, “Each man kills the thing he loves.”
Another line in that mordant poem reads, “Yet each man does not die.” So the endlessly influential playwright, poet, and wit was allowing for inevitable fallibility of art.
Wilde died in Paris in late 1900, at only 46, of meningitis, complicated by alcohol and several concussions, one received during his gruesome two years in prison for “gross indecency”—resulting from a lawsuit he foolishly undertook.
Everett, almost 60, successfully hides behind pudgy prosthetics and swaddled overcoats as the (almost) humbled Great Man wanders the sordid back lanes of Dieppe, Naples, and then gay Paree, cadging drinks, young flesh, and audiences in three languages. The only thing postclink Oscar can’t do is write, leading to serious deficiency in the money department.
Wilde also has a wife and two sons, and Constance (played too briefly by Emily Watson) sends him a small allowance while refusing to see him. He’s alternately attended by faithfully bland secretary Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and the excitingly treacherous Bosie Douglas (Colin Morgan), who got him in trouble in the first place. Their triangle encapsulates the writer’s self-destructive nature. “He loves me in a way,” he says to each in turn about the other, “you couldn’t possibly understand.”
These moments are brilliantly insightful, but the murkily shot, necessarily depressive movie has so many flashbacks, subplots, and dream sequences, it’s hard to get a handle on Everett’s full intentions. Still, he certainly achieves part of his original goal: to ensure that Oscar Wilde can never really die.