Wilde at heart
The Happy Prince is an obvious labor of love for Rupert Everett, who wrote, directed and stars as Oscar Wilde. “Labor of love” can all too easily slide into “vanity project,” and it’s to Everett’s credit that he avoids that pitfall. Still, for all its heartfelt sincerity, the movie is missing something. Not much, maybe, but something.
The title, of course, is ironic. Its immediate meaning is a reference to Wilde’s 1888 children’s story about the gilded statue of a sheltered prince; the statue gets a glimpse of the poverty and unhappiness in the kingdom that the living prince was never forced to confront. In the end, the statue’s leaden heart is broken, though it is redeemed by a merciful angel and allowed to live forever in heaven. It’s a melancholy, bittersweet story, but the heavenly comfort the statue receives is denied to Everett’s Prince Oscar.
The movie covers the last three years of Wilde’s life, after his release from two years hard labor for “gross indecency with men.” From reciting The Happy Prince to his two sons during happier times, he is reduced to telling it to two brothers, guests in his squalid Paris apartment (with the older boy serving as Wilde’s paid lover). The misery of these years is relieved only sporadically by Wilde’s wit, defiant in adversity (including his famous aphorism, “I am in mortal combat with this wallpaper; one of us has to go."), and by brief, dreamlike flashbacks to his days of celebrity before his self-inflicted scandal and ruin. These moments are too vague and fleeting to do anything but throw his present dire straits into sharper relief.
When Wilde reunites with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan), the callow, selfish young lover whose vindictive father brought on Wilde’s downfall in the first place, it’s an act of heedless self-destruction that only makes matters worse. It deprives Wilde of his meager allowance from his ex-wife (Emily Watson in a tragically dignified cameo), while Bosie is threatened with losing his own income. Their idyll in Naples crashes around their ears and Bosie flits off, while Wilde lands in that cheap Paris hotel with the murderous wallpaper. His last days are spent in the company of the only friends who never abandoned him, his literary agent Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and writer Reggie Turner (Colin Firth).
Rupert Everett was born to play Wilde, and has done so before on stage in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss. His investment in the role is total, and at times The Happy Prince threatens to become a pity-party wallow. As a writer, Everett sometimes overplays things, as when Wilde’s deathbed baptism into the Catholic Church is intercut with flashbacks of his being spat upon by a British mob while in transit from one prison to another. And as a director, he sometimes lets his movie lapse into an awkward lurch from one martyrdom to the next, like the Stations of the Cross—which, again, may have been Everett’s overstated point.
But as an actor, Everett never makes a false move. His Oscar Wilde is like a great bear, weakened by dissipation and wounded by cruel abuse, yet somehow summoning a ruined dignity almost to the very end.