When one thinks of Oscar Wilde, it’s usually Wilde the young literary sensation, basking in the acclaim from “The Importance of Being Earnest” and dropping witty bon mots at parties.
But Rupert Everett gives us a very different Wilde in “The Happy Prince,” the most ironically titled movie of the year. The film has been a passion project for Everett (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) that he's been trying to make for a decade. He wrote and directed it and stars as Wilde.
In 1895, Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison for “gross indecency,” a charge that essentially criminalized being gay. Prison broke Wilde’s spirit. He was released in 1897 as a shell of himself, penniless and shunned by society.
It’s this Wilde that Everett plays, a drunk, overweight sad sack who roams the streets of Paris under an assumed name, stewing in liquor and self-loathing, but still capable of a devastating witty line. Everett may be one of the most handsome actors alive, but he makes himself grotesque with a fake nose and jowls. Having played a younger Wilde on stage and starring in film adaptations of Wilde plays like “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Everett knows his character inside and out, and he sinks deep into the role.
Wilde staggers from France to Italy, relying on the help of benefactors like his old friend Reggie (Colin Firth in a small role), who thinks he can still revive Wilde’s career. Less helpful is Wilde’s tortured ongoing relationship with Bosie (Colin Morgan), the young lover whose angry father accused Wilde of being a “sodomite.” Wilde responded with a libel lawsuit, which backfired and resulted in the gross indecency conviction.
Everett tries to film “The Happy Prince” as much as possible from Wilde’s point of view, a hazy alcoholic fog in which memories start to overwhelm him. He’s haunted by visions of his wife Constance (Emily Watson) and the two young sons he left behind. Other times his mind wanders to the highs of his old life, and the lows. We see him both cheered on by audiences and attacked by a homophobic mob at a train station.
At times the meandering, hallucinogenic nature of “The Happy Prince” becomes distracting, and the busy direction overwhelms the fine performances. But the performances ultimately prevail, as Everett gives us a Wilde who is completely stripped of dignity and comfort.
What remains is courage and wit, and a resolve not to give in to the hypocrisy of the era despite the enormous personal cost. In Wilde’s fable “The Happy Prince,” a gold statue is stripped of all its precious metals and jewels in order to feed the poor, and Everett presents Wilde as a man who was never more heroic than after he lost everything.