The Happy Prince


Opening Friday, Nov. 2

British actor Rupert Everett writes, directs, and stars in The Happy Prince, a grim portrait of literary bon vivant Oscar Wilde. The darkness is deliberate. Everett chooses to set his story in the tragic last years of Wilde’s life, when the great writer, once the most famous person in London, is reduced to penury and exile.

At the height of his fame, Wilde was as close to being an out gay man as it was possible to be in Victorian England, and it cost him dearly. He was imprisoned in 1895 and sentenced to two years hard labor, the maximum punishment, for the crime of “gross indecency with men.”

In Everett’s telling, prison has ejected Wilde as a deeply damaged soul. He briefly rekindles his doomed romance with aristocratic lover Bosie Douglas (Colin Morgan), but Wilde is incapable of enjoying the old pleasures. The absinthe and cocaine aren’t the enhancers they used to be. They’re numbing agents. Wilde doesn’t even bother to attempt any writing, though that doesn’t stop him from accepting advances from three publishers for his next play. The old rogue.

The Happy Prince is a long-percolating passion project for Everett, the actor, activist, and heir apparent to the Wildean spirit. Everett buries his chiseled beauty beneath prosthetics for the role (I didn’t even recognize him) and delivers a ferocious performance. Wilde’s famous wit has curdled into something more toxic in poverty, and you can feel the pain throbbing beneath the bitter quips. “I’m dying beyond my means,” he says.

As lead actor, Everett is easily the film’s strongest asset, even as other ace British role-players fill the frame (Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson in wicked cameo). But as a storyteller and first-time filmmaker, Everett stumbles. The flashback sequences are confusing, and the main structural device—a recitation of Wilde’s fable The Happy Prince, told in bits and pieces—simply never registers. I had to go read about it afterward. Movies shouldn’t require homework.

But then, passion projects are always a tricky business. Everett’s performance is so powerful, so astonishing, as if he’s plugged into some high-voltage time-travel wire directly to Wilde’s tortured soul. That’s good for the performance, not so good for the storytelling, which too often meanders into sentiment, pathos, and a kind of self-consciously bleak grandeur. I suspect Wilde the dramatist would have winced a little at Everett’s dark and earnest tribute.