Directed, written by and starring Rupert Everett, “The Happy Prince” is a chronicle of the last sad, wild, ecstatic and semi-impoverished years of the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, once “the most famous man in London,” imprisoned for his homosexuality. The film, which travels back and forth in time and features some of the world’s most romantic locations — London, Paris, Naples and more — is a remarkable achievement for an actor who was one of the first of his profession to openly embrace his homosexuality, something that certainly limited his career (he once tried unsuccessfully to launch a gay James Bond movie).
The film is full of angry rebelliousness, a rueful, guilt-ridden regret and a still glowing artistic temperament that might manifest itself as a semi-drunken song sung in a disreputable Paris nightclub (one of the film’s triumphs). At the same time, we have a scene in which Wilde is transferred to Reading Gaol, the subject of his 1898 poem, which we hear recited in part in the film, and recognized by bystanders, some of whom boil into a frenzy of lynch-mob hatred and spit upon his face.
We see snatches of the lawsuit against the Marquess of Queensbury and the trial that lands Wilde in prison. Among Wilde’s friends and lovers are Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), who would stand by Wilde and help support him in his exile, but never earn his love; friend, fellow writer and supporter Reggie Turner (executive producer Colin Firth); and Alfred Bosie Douglas (a fine turn by Colin Morgan), the lover whose father the Marquess gloats when Wilde is sentenced to two years of hard labor for his “crimes” (Wilde, like many British homosexuals, was pardoned en masse more recently).
In exile in mainland Europe, where he takes the name of another Irish wanderer, Sebastian Melmoth, Wilde remains in contact with his wife, Constance (Emily Watson, potent in a small role), with whom he has two young sons. In Paris, Wilde famously wages “mortal combat” with some hideous wallpaper and befriends a young street hustler from Clignancourt and his little brother, who comes to adore the aging writer. Constance agrees to give her husband a stipend of four pounds a week if he stays away from Bosie. But Wilde could not resist when Bosie comes to France to see him and the two of them head for Naples, where their outrageous lifestyle is somewhat more tolerated.
Everett speaks French and Italian in the film and wears different makeup and padding, delivering an outsized performance that would have delighted the late Orson Welles. Everett’s Wilde is a man broken by imprisonment, but still “trailing clouds of glory” and good humor. Wilde not only loves the theater, where in flashbacks we see him accepting the wild applause of West End audiences.
As Everett depicts it, Wilde’s entire life is a form of theater with unforgettable characters, sudden reversals of fortune, life-threatening conflicts, hilarious developments, songs to sing and battles to wage.
The film’s title refers to Wilde’s 1888 children’s book “The Happy Prince and Other Tales.”
(“The Happy Prince” contains sexually suggestive scenes, nudity, profanity and drug use.)