The Happy Prince
a title steeped in irony, picks up Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) at the lowest and final ebb of a life that began in brilliance, soared into glittering celebrity and accomplishment, foundered in misjudgment, and ended in misery. We discover the hulking, shambling figure of the great writer stumbling through the streets of Paris, destitute and ill. And yet, in a brief assignation in a squalid room with a young French boy for hire, he is able to say, “I have never been happier in my life than I am at this moment.”
The moment rules Wilde. He knows better — on his release from his two-year stretch at hard labor for “gross indecency,” he tells his friends Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) that he will never again see the lover who caused his downfall, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan). But he is a slave to his impulses, and soon Oscar and Bosie are in one another’s arms again, Wilde’s wife Constance (Emily Watson) has cut off his allowance, and the writer is sucked deeper into his downward spiral.
The movie, written and directed by Everett, is dense with atmosphere and a little dizzy when it comes to continuity, as it skips about in time and place to scatter flashbacks along the road to ruin. Some of these can be a little ham-handed, but for the most part, Everett succeeds in creating an impressionistic canvas of his man’s decline and memories. And he manages to slip in a few classic Wildean quotes, such as “I am dying beyond my means,” and the fabled crack about the wallpaper around his deathbed.
It’s as an actor that Everett truly dazzles. His evocation of Wilde is nothing less than superb. He takes us through a few brief glimpses of Wilde before the fall, and into the gathering pestilence of poverty and disease, the heaviness of body and spirit, that shaped him (here with the help of some expert prosthetic makeup) as he lumbered toward death. And through it all, Wilde’s indomitable wit and sardonic brilliance pierce the encroaching fog.
shares its title with a Wilde children’s story that this movie weaves in as a sometimes cumbersome but still touching narrative metaphor. Early on, we see him telling it as bedtime fare to his two little sons, and later as a Scheherazadian tale spun out in installments to two Parisian street kids. It’s a story of selflessness and sacrifice, not qualities one necessarily associates with the great Oscar.
The movie is a worthy tribute to one of the greats of English literature, and a timely, cautionary reminder of the devastating effects of bigotry on an individual, and a culture. — Jonathan Richards