Florid but warmhearted — much like the man at its center — “The Happy Prince” is a haunting portrait of the aftermath of betrayal; of how the master of comedy became a tragedy. Rating 3 stars out of 4.
Few literary final acts are as sad as that of Oscar Wilde. Released after two years of harsh incarceration in 1897 — for the then-crime of “gross indecency,” i.e. consensual gay sex — he fled London, where he was once the toast of the town for the glittering wit of his plays (most notably “The Importance of Being Earnest”) and pronouncements, and lived out the remaining three years of his life in exile in France. Broke, sick and abandoned by most of his former circle, Wilde died in a cheap Paris hotel room at the age of 46, famously noting of the room’s hideous wallpaper that “one of us has got to go.”
Not surprisingly, “The Happy Prince” (whose title comes from a children’s story by Wilde, which he originally told to his young sons) is a very sad movie indeed. It’s a 10-year passion project for Rupert Everett, who wrote the screenplay, directed and plays Wilde as a quietly broken man, with a voice that sounds like a shadow. And while, for me, the definitive screen Wilde will always be the gentle-voiced Stephen Fry (in 1997’s “Wilde”), Everett’s portrayal is quite moving. The man who refers to himself as “this bruised and trodden lily” moves slowly and painfully through his last years, in a fog of unpaid bills and pushed-away memories; still enraptured by male beauty, but viewing it through a filter of resigned sadness.
Those who know Wilde’s story will recognize the main characters in this small-scale tale: Wilde’s faithful friends Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas); his estranged, brokenhearted wife Constance (Emily Watson); and the golden-haired man who was both Wilde’s great love and his betrayer, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan, deliciously deploying a very practiced smile). Everett tells the story economically but with the occasional lurid, melodramatic flourish; Wilde’s point of view is sometimes blurry and grotesque, as he drinks to erase the pain. “I used to be quite famous,” he casually tells a rent boy, as if talking of someone long ago.
Florid but warmhearted — much like the man at its center — “The Happy Prince” is a haunting portrait of the aftermath of betrayal; of how the master of comedy became a tragedy.
★★★ “The Happy Prince,” with Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas, Emily Watson. Written and directed by Everett. 104 minutes. Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use. Opens Oct. 26 at the Regal Meridian.