I’m sure I’m not the first person to make this statement, but there is quite simply no actor on the planet more suited to play the late author/playwright/literary genius Oscar Wilde than Rupert Everett. He has both acted in Wilde’s adapted work on the screen in the films An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as on the stage in writer David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss.
With The Happy Prince, Everett takes on the many roles, including first-time writer and director in this story of the Wilde’s final days in exile in Italy, after ending a long and draining stint in a British prison doing hard labor.
The choice to play Wilde at his most sickly, bloated and broke is a bold choice, but it gives Everett the opportunity to let the humorist shine through the pale makeup and padding to remind us of what he was once capable of. Broke and living well beyond his means, he leaned heavily on old friends who came in steady succession to see him, including his oldest and most loyal friend Reggie Turner (Colin Firth); his literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas); and a younger gigolo Bosie (Colin Morgan), who returns to Wilde’s life after their relationship essentially was the thing that got the writer thrown in jail in the first place.
With Wilde being so sick, a great deal of the film is seen as memories he’s having while on his death bed—fever dreams of both good and bad times gone by. We see him with his tolerant (to a point) wife Constance (a sadly underused Emily Watson) and their young children, with whom he is determined to re-establish a relationship when he gets out of prison. But he also remembers the deep-seated trauma of being in chains at a train station on the way to jail, then being recognized by other passengers and spit on and chided by them. Both visually and emotionally, that sequence show just how much power and skill Everett is capable of as a filmmaker.
Wilde is shown as a desperate but good-spirited man who uses those around him for funds, just as certain sycophants that visit him attempt to pry away his last coins for their own needs. Everett’s performance in The Happy Prince is nothing short of astonishing and full of nuances that paint Wilde as both magnificent and grotesque. As an actor who has always been open about his sexuality, Everett probably understands better than most some of the prejudices that Wilde experienced, even though Everett has quite a successful career even after coming out. But the empathy he feels for Wilde’s tribulations is all in the screenplay and on the screen, and it makes the film both troubling and exceptional as a document of this sad period in both Wilde’s life and history in general.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.