Dramatizations of the life of playwright Oscar Wilde usually dwell on his sentence to prison with hard labor for homosexuality. The films “Oscar Wilde” and “The Trials of Oscar Wilde,” both of which came out in 1960, put the emphasis on his downfall, as did the biopic “Wilde” from 1997 and numerous theatrical productions, such as “Gross Indecency.”
Rupert Everett played Wilde in a revival of David Hare’s play “The Judas Kiss” in 2012 in London, and now he returns to the role in “The Happy Prince,” which he also wrote and directed. Everett shows little sense of how to structure his material, or how to shoot it, or even sometimes how to act it, but he does have one key element that sees him through: keen insight into Wilde’s world and character. And this insight gets him pretty far here.
“The Happy Prince” begins with title cards explaining who Wilde was and his success as a witty playwright, and also his trial and prison sentence. We see Everett’s Wilde telling a fairy tale to his two young sons in a hushed voice, and then the narrative jumps forward 10 years to a post-prison Wilde in Paris accepting a small sum of money from a female fan whose husband hurls verbal abuse at him.
Everett’s Wilde puts rouge on his face to go out for the evening in Paris, where he meets up with a pair of brothers, one young and one of age, and he pays to sleep with the older one. As Wilde basks in post-coital bliss afterward, he seems to be relishing the mixture of sordidness and beauty in his surroundings, the bug that runs along the surface of the bed and the way the light makes his naked trick look like a marble statue. Everett understands that Wilde is fully capable of happiness in his reduced circumstances, and he convincingly projects this stolen joy and also a formidable playfulness.
Everett first came to prominence as a male beauty in 1980s British period films like “Another Country” and “Dance With a Stranger,” and he was particularly dashing as the object of desire in the Harold Pinter-scripted “The Comfort of Strangers.” After his success in “My Best Friend’s Wedding” in 1997, Everett was publicly out of the closet long before it was seen as safe or viable for an actor. He became known as a public wit and provocateur who spoke with candor even about his own deficiencies as an actor.
Everett can do Wilde’s wit and his anger, and he can just about approximate his sorrow, too. But the real value of “The Happy Prince” lies in the way that Everett understands the codes and humor of Wilde and his social circle. There is a moment in this movie where Wilde’s long-suffering friend Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) calls Wilde a “professional masochist,” and Everett does a delightfully old-school gay reaction to this by widening his eyes in a way that signals, “You’ve hit a nerve!” and “How dare you!” and “I love it!” all at once. This way of relating between gay men is on the verge of extinction, and so it’s worth preserving in a story about this most famous of gay martyrs.
As Wilde’s wife Constance, Emily Watson is able to get across her character’s pain and stodginess all in just a few telling moments, and Colin Morgan (“Humans”), who plays Wilde’s hateful lover Bosie, has the kind of cheekbones worth throwing your life away for. When Wilde tells the loyal Robbie that Robbie is not “grand enough or rough enough” to really hold his attention romantically as Bosie does, Everett reveals his full understanding of what drives this man.
Everett makes clear in “The Happy Prince” that Wilde is a pariah not just within heterosexual society but also within groups of gay youths who jeer at him out of spite and self-hatred. There is nothing sentimental here or self-consciously gloomy, as there is in other films about Wilde. It finally matters very little that “The Happy Prince” is haphazardly written and awkwardly directed because Everett is an intelligent man who has a deep imaginative connection to Wilde and his wit and his cruising and his whole worldview.
“I’ve spent all my ready cash on youth and beauty,” Everett’s Wilde announces languidly towards the end of “The Happy Prince.” It is a measure of Everett’s toughness that he says this in a way that lets us know that Wilde enjoyed doing this, and he would gladly do it again.