Directed, written by and starring Rupert Everett, "The Happy Prince" is a genuine passion project, a creative act existing completely in its own space and on its own terms. Both in his disciplined filmmaking, with each scene choreographed as carefully as a dance, and his portrayal of playwright and author Oscar Wilde in decay far past his prime, Everett delivers an almost unbearably bittersweet feast for the senses.
Handsomely shot across period-appropriate European locations, the film is faithful to the facts. The heart of the tale is the twilight of Wilde's legend, the final three years of his life.
Wilde, the 20th century's first true pop celebrity, had just completed two years' hard labor in prison for his crime of being gay and out in Victorian England. That was all it took to end his glorious days basking in the applause of audiences for "The Importance of Being Earnest." In 1897, with a ruined reputation and failing health, he became an outcast in France, imprisoned by bankruptcy and exile.
The script doesn't make Wilde a conventional, overtly sympathetic hero. It introduces him at rock bottom, living in cheap Paris hotels under the alias of Sebastian Melmoth because France also considers him scandalous. Once a literary lion, he now prowls the city's alleys, asking for handouts when recognized by visiting English socialites who remember him from his days of acclaim. He uses whatever loose change his pockets hold to buy glasses of absinthe or male prostitutes.
But the elegantly dressed London dandy of better days still lives in his memories. As the movie comes and goes through different periods of his life, it becomes a meditation on mortality, sexuality, beauty, suffering and the longing for youth.
Wilde has too many regrets to count, and high among them is his parting from his wife, Constance (Emily Watson), and their two young boys. In recurring flashbacks, the children give the film its framing device as he tells them the bedtime story of the happy prince, a pleasure-seeking young noble who discovers his scruples in dying.
As Constance, who keeps Wilde afloat with a tiny allowance, Watson balances her feelings of shame and dishonor with a recognition that he deeply loves their children and, in his outlandish way, her as well. Given the ambiguous ways that Wilde applies the term "love," we can understand her ill feeling.
A pair of loyal, sensible supporters support him with counsel and finances throughout: Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), the caring trustee of Wilde's estate, and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth), a longtime friend hoping to revive his career in London theater. But Wilde seems to see pleasure and suffering as synonyms, a good insight for a great artist but a poor strategy for living.
Everett's deeply sad performance digs into the man's melancholy, unquenchable wit and invincible ego masterfully. Wilde attempts a small return to the stage by singing to a delighted music hall crowd while standing atop his table. Unable to avoid obvious dangers, he slips and falls to the floor for a concussive climax. And, as is his nature, he continues to pursue contact with the depraved Alfred "Bosie" Douglas (Colin Morgan), the young rake whose tumultuous affair with Wilde ruined him.
If you call this a film about addiction, you won't be far from the truth. Wilde is always desperate for more, even when he's clearly already sick. In Everett's film, he becomes a figure like Lear, his madness becoming his tragedy as he remains determined to let it finally consume him.