For his writing-directing debut, actor Rupert Everett ambitiously recreates the final three years of Oscar Wilde’s life in a swirling, artistic odyssey. Everett has a lifelong interest in Wilde, including roles in films based on Wilde’s work (see 1999’s An Ideal Husband and 2002’s The Importance of Being Earnest) and a series of TV documentary explorations of homosexuality in Victorian Britain. So in many ways The Happy Prince feels like the culmination of Everett’s life’s work.
In 1895, the Dublin-born Oscar Wilde (played of course by Everett) was 41 and at the peak of his career, the most famous man in England. Married to Constance (Emily Watson) with two young sons, Wilde was sensationally betrayed and arrested for being gay, serving a two-year sentence that involved hard labour. This took a terrible toll on his already fragile health, so when he was released he immediately headed to France to recover with the help of his loyal friends Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas).
But it was his lover Bosie Douglas (Colin Morgan) who remained on his mind, and the two of them soon ran off to Italy. Through all of this, Constance had supported Wilde from a distance, but this was the last straw, and she cut him off financially. Now penniless and unable to fund his lavish, partying lifestyle, Wilde moved to Paris to try to make a living. But injuries he sustained while in prison were exacerbated by a fall, and it was Robbie who came to his aid when he again needed help.
Everett chooses to tell this story without a sharply defined narrative line, shifting around in time to continually explore the jarring contrasts in Wilde’s life. These scenes are held together with a fantastical fairy tale Wilde weaves for his children and friends about The Happy Prince, a story of compassion that leads to misery and pain and, only ultimately, a reward. As a writer-director-actor, Everett mixes all of these elements to create an emotionally resonant, lushly visualised account of a great man who loses his reputation, home, family, friends and ultimately his health. Watching this isn’t always easy, and the film’s dark production design and murky pacing sometimes add to the misery. But Everett finds ways to sparkle even within the overweight, jowly make-up, expressing Wilde’s biting wit and sharply astute observations. And the lush, shadowy production design is accompanied by a magnificent Gabriel Yared score.
Each of the supporting cast members adds a knowing touch to Wilde’s story. Firth and Thomas get the most complex scenes, while Morgan’s much more prickly Bosie has some pointed moments of his own. Watson is excellent as Constantine, who is somewhat sidelined in the film (as she was in Wilde’s life). But The Happy Prince is Everett’s show, and he shines both as an actor and a filmmaker. It’s a striking story of a shameful chapter in British history, when the brightest and best were destroyed for their sexuality (see also Alan Turing more than half a century later). So not only does the film remind us how far we’ve come, but it also affirms that Wilde’s work and wit stand the test of time.